Andrew Scott Plays a Ice-Cold Killer in New Netflix Show

In 1954, Patricia Highsmith was anticipating the publication of her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, a masterpiece of criminal psychopathology that would introduce her greatest creation: killer Tom Ripley.

“What I predicted I would once do, I am doing already in this very book,” she wrote in her diary. “That is, showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it. I shall make my readers rejoice in it too.”

“Rejoice” isn’t really the right word, given Ripley’s habit of clubbing people to death and then fastidiously covering up his tracks. Let’s say instead that Netflix viewers will be breathless with excitement.

This eight-episode series, starring Fleabag’s “Hot Priest” Andrew Scott, is possibly the finest version yet of this often-adapted thriller (which led to four other Ripley novels). Shot in silvery, deep-shadowed black and white, Ripley flawlessly captures the tone of Highsmith’s original: the smooth, sinister tug of suspense, the suffocating paranoia, the congealed homoeroticism.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Highsmith was a strange woman. On one occasion, she arrived at a party with her handbag full of snails.

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When we meet Ripley, he’s leading a lonely existence as a low-level grifter in New York City. Then a wealthy shipbuilder, Mr. Greenleaf (Kenneth Lonergan), father of an acquaintance of Ripley’s, summons him with a proposition. Mr. Greenleaf is worried that his son Dickie (Johnny Flynn) has permanently decamped to Italy, lured by fantasies of becoming a painter. Would Ripley be willing to go to Italy and try to bring Dickie back? (The premise is borrowed from Henry James’ murder-free 1903 novel The Ambassadors.)

Ripley leaps at the chance: He’s a grade-A sponger, for one thing, and a true aesthete with an eye for all the art that Italy promises. He’s especially entranced by the violent canvases of Caravaggio, with their vivid chiaroscuro and shocking hints of queer ecstasy.

Ripley, as it turns out, has his own unrequited gay desire for Dickie, a handsome dope who shows no discernible talent with a brush (although he does own a Picasso that Ripley assesses with hungry glances). Marge (Dakota Fanning), Dickie’s girlfriend, instinctively dislikes Ripley. But neither she nor Freddie (Eliot Sumner), a friend of Dickie’s who keeps a sharp, cynical eye out for Ripley’s social faux pas, can anticipate how brutally he’ll react when he feels trapped or betrayed.

Unlike Dexter, Ripley isn’t some nice boy-next-door type who happens to own an impressive set of knives. (That would be truer of Matt Damon’s performance in the superb 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley, which suggested that Tom’s murderous behavior was a grossly maladaptive response to the homophobia he encountered.)

Matt Damon as Ripley in the 1999 film ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’.

Scott’s Ripley has thin-lidded, reptilian eyes, a manner that’s polite but less than charming and a colorless voice that’s nonetheless capable of stinging irony, disdain and sarcasm. He possesses all the social warmth of one of those snails Highsmith found so companionable. (Actually, compared to Ripley a snail has the springing joy of a golden retriever.)

Part of Highsmith’s genius is how psychologically, and deterministically plausible she makes Ripley’s deadly, amoral opportunism. He latches on to his victims like a tendril of ivy making its way up a brick wall, slowly digging below the surface. Yet, we root for this monster.

The supporting cast couldn’t be better. Fanning is especially good as Marge. She’s clipped, judgmental and unsmiling—there hasn’t been a figure of such puritanical disapproval since Amy Adams in The Master. But the master here is Highsmith. Enjoy—rejoice, even.

Ripley is now streaming on Netflix.

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