What ‘Ripley’ understands about the infiltration of the rich

In today’s climate, where billionaires are gobbling up media companies All in all, it seems like any fictional TV or movie plot, even slightly related to rich characters, has to deal with a series of familiar questions. Do the rich eat what they don’t have? Does the story effectively make the audience want to condemn the rich or the rich in general?

And more broadly: What does it say about capitalism?

To be fair, filmmakers have belied answers like these lately with half-baked ideas about them in films like The Glass Onion and the even more lacking Saltburn.

The new Netflix series, Ripley, however, refuses to engage with any of this — to its advantage. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s popular novels following the escapades of grifter Tom Ripley, a character made cinematically famous in director Anthony Minghella’s 1999 blockbuster The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley finds its protagonist equally calculating, unassuming and murderous. .

When we meet him at the start of his eight-episode journey, it’s the 1960s, and Tom (differingly portrayed by Andrew Scott) is living in New York and making a pretty good living out of anonymous petty crime. It’s clear that he’s lonely – maybe by choice, because of his lifestyle, or maybe because he just likes it better this way. The public never knows for sure and it doesn’t matter.

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The crisp, black-and-white cinematography in “Ripley” illuminates the cold, detached world of an American con man in Italy.

STEFANO C. MONTESI/NETFLIX © 2023

Each episode is expensive, shot with Robert Elswit’s crisp black-and-white cinematography. Writer-director Steven Zaillian grounds the audience’s willingness to root for Tom based on his undeniable intrigue and his excellent storytelling.

He has the right guess. It’s virtually impossible not to be enthralled by Tom’s every move, even for those of us who have already seen his trajectory play out before and still love Matt Damon’s performance in the 1999 film. “Ripley” doesn’t expand much in a story that is already familiar to some. On the contrary, it takes time to increase the infiltration of the character in the world of privilege.

An offer from a rich man too big to refuse comes along Tom’s path, sending the grifter from the Big Apple to Italy to find the man’s son (Johnny Flynn) who has been drawn there for, perhaps, fun or good vibes. – or, really, just because he can. That’s part of the allure of being rich: going through life as you please. It’s already beguiling to watch as a viewer, but utterly irresistible to a man like Tom.

Because as a rogue, Tom can be anywhere, or anyone, at will, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Few people who are not rich can say the same.

Like Jacob Elord’s Felix in “Saltburn,” Dickie is likable; he loves his girlfriend, Marge (Dakota Fanning), feels inspired by his paintings, and is thrilled by his adopted Italian life filled with great food, wine, beaches, and friends like Freddie Miles (an Eliot Sumner phenomenal).

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Eliot Sumner, the child of Trudie Styler and Sting, impressively plays the pompous Freddie Miles, previously portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Philippe Antonello/NETFLIX

One thing “Ripley” seems to know astutely about our infinity obsession with wealth, on and off screen, is that it is not rich people or wealth itself that are inherently bad. The show doesn’t actively try to bash either of them. Instead, it’s about what’s both rotten and tempting about having money: acting with impunity.

Rich people can and often do get away with anything, and that’s just the identity Tom needs. Dickie welcomes Tom into his world of luxury, which Tom is quick to partake in – decadent dinners, gorgeous scenery and a sparkling lifestyle. But the grift is more invested in all this because here he can be anonymous and untouched.

We never witness Tom’s enthusiasm for these endless evenings or spending obscene amounts of money on things that don’t matter. What we see is a man who will do anything to be everywhere and nowhere at once, even if he has to throw away or even become other people along the way. It’s sociopathic, cunning as all get out, and completely effective.

This makes every encounter Tom has with any character – be it the worried landlady, the over-popular hotel clerks, Marge, a pushy inspector or the snobbish Freddy – feel almost immediately dangerous. Because potential intimate exchanges are the enemy of the excluded. They make the culprits more vulnerable. But they create excellent suspense throughout the series.

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(L to R) Dakota Fanning, Johnny Flynn and Scott in a scene from “Ripley.”

All of this makes it hard not to think about the role that race plays in this story. “Ripley” never contradicts him. This may be partly because it has an almost entirely white cast or because the story, or the Zailians, have no interest in it.

But it’s hard not to see this story through the context of a white American of modest means who is banished across the world because his race, in part, gives him an unbridled credibility to find a man who don’t know, who may or may not already be in trouble. (Dickie’s father seems unsure about the last point.)

The only non-white character who might be able to penetrate that layer of racial privilege is played by Bokeem Woodbine, a black man who books the series and is just as mysterious as Tom. Their dynamic together provokes a number of interesting thoughts: like, what gives to being mysterious, or Woodbine’s character’s relationship with the rich, or even wealth itself?

This is likely to be something different than the impunity that Tom eventually gets. It’s a mistake that becomes a nagging flaw of “Ripley.” Or maybe it’s folded into one of the great intrigues of a show that effortlessly rails against “eating the rich” and binary morality. The series actively resides in its own shadowy reality, much like the rich themselves.

“Ripley” comes out Thursday on Netflix.

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