Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Reel Rundown: ‘Ripley’ gives you a villain worth rooting for

Andrew Scott, left, and Dakota Fanning attend the Los Angeles Premiere Of Netflix’s “Ripley” at the Egyptian Theatre Hollywood on April 3 in Los Angeles.  (Getty Images)
By Dan Webster For The Spokesman-Review

It was while I was watching Geoffrey Wright’s 1992 film “Romper Stomper” that I first noticed how it’s sometimes difficult not to root for the bad guy. And make no mistake, Russell Crowe’s character of Hando – a brutal, vicious Australian Nazi skinhead – is the quintessential bad guy.

It’s to the credit of director Wright and actor Crowe, then, that when Hando and his followers are pursued by a Vietnamese gang bent on revenge, I found myself rooting for him to get away.

I’m feeling much the same way while watching the Netflix series “Ripley.” Written and directed by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian, and starring the magnetic British actor Andrew Scott, “Ripley” is an eight-episode adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 psychological thriller “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

This is hardly the first time that a filmmaker has brought Highsmith’s novel to the big screen. René Clément’s 1960 film “Purple Noon” is based on the book, with Alain Delon portraying the central character. And Matt Damon portrayed Ripley in the late Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation, titled the same as Highsmith’s novel.

There have been other Ripley portrayals as well, each based on later Highsmith works: 1977’s “The American Friend” starred Dennis Hopper in an adaptation of “Ripley’s Game.” John Malkovich starred as Ripley in a 2002 version of the same novel, while Barry Pepper portrayed Ripley in a 2005 adaptation of “Ripley Under Ground.”

In all of these productions, the character of Ripley remains relatively unchanged: He’s a small-time con artist and forger who, through a blend of his native cleverness and sometimes sheer luck – not to mention his essential sociopathic nature – manages to rise from humble roots to assume the privileged life he lusts after.

Scott, though, adds something special to the mix. Best known for his portrayal of Moriarty opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the Masterpiece Theatre series “Sherlock,” Scott is a stage actor who received rave reviews for his role in the critically acclaimed 2023 feature film “All of Us Strangers.” In “Ripley,” his creep quotient aligns well with Highsmith’s literary intentions.

Unlike Damon, whose portrayal can’t help but appear softened at one point near the end of Minghella’s film, Scott’s Ripley is adamantly predatory. By chance he is hired by the father of the wastrel Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn) to find the young man and bring him home. The look on Scott’s face when he realizes the opportunity this presents is revelatory.

Other notable performances are put in by former child star Dakota Fanning, she having developed the skill to capably fill adult roles, along with Eliot Sumner (son of the musician Sting) and the Italian actor Maurizio Lombardi.

Zaillian – who won his Oscar for writing the screenplay for 1993’s “Schindler’s List” – supports Scott brilliantly by replicating 1960s Italy in classic noir black and white (rendered on screen by the talented cinematographer Robert Elswit, an Oscar winner for 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”).

As Ripley murders his way through the series, the combination of Zaillian’s visual narrative and Scott’s performance makes it hard not to cringe whenever he comes close to getting caught – which is often.

At least it does for those of us who, for whatever reason, are at times driven to root for the villain.