Apart from being stunned by Saltburn at first watch, the first thought I had in mind was that it feels oddly similar to an old Matt Damon movie that I really liked. I happened upon The Talented Mr. Ripley when I was specifically looking for something starring Matt Damon. I suppose this isn’t really a new tale; Mr. Ripley itself is based on a book of the same name, and then there’s the classic Brideshead Revisited, which is essentially a very similar story, yet there’s a uniqueness to this film, possibly from the period it’s set in. Perhaps this is what I find the most similar between the two films. Saltburn is clearly a product of its time. It’s no secret that it is a film for Gen Z specifically; however, this is also the reason that the film comes across as a little superficial, underwhelming if you will. Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t seen a film this detailed in a long time. I’m sure with every watch there’s something new to discover, but it is almost as if Fennell tried too hard to make the film fit in this box, which watered down the experience of it all.
The Talented Mr. Ripley tells the story of a con artist—the first big difference between the two films—who has a stroke of luck when he gets mistaken for a Princeton guy as he’s wearing the university blazer. On the other hand, Saltburn’s protagonist is a university student who has made it to the prestigious Oxford University. Of course, the commonality between the two characters is the natural ease with which they churn out their tall tales that attract the rich. Both Oliver and Tom are pathological liars, getting closer to their goal with each lie. What I find really interesting is the way the two lead actors approach this character. For the most part, I could almost mistake Mr. Ripley for being a romanticist. Matt Damon’s Tom doesn’t come across as obsessed; despite his obsessive behavior, there’s an almost innocent romantic quality to it. I suppose it comes across more as a repression of sexuality than an “eat the rich” film. With Oliver, we’re certain he wants Felix’s life. He starts the film off by describing his love for Felix, but the more I think about it, the more I feel like it’s about turning into him rather than being with him. For Tom, it’s the other way around. He loves Dickie; he even confesses his feelings. It’s when he’s rejected that he gets thrown off, despite Dickie being the poster child of a heterosexual playboy.
Tom is tasked with bringing Dickie back to the US from Italy by Dickie’s father, whereas Oliver is like a predator who happens upon Felix and chooses him as his prey. Tom always happens upon the luxuries he starts to enjoy; it was never about desire for him. It starts off as a simple invitation, and then, out of the blue, he’s over the moon. Whereas Oliver knows exactly what he’s looking for, his entire plan is chalked out neatly, like the outline of a corpse at the scene of a murder. Tom grows to like the lifestyle, and Oliver makes sure he gets invited to sit at the table. Both Dickie and Felix are naive; they fall easily for Tom and Oliver’s tricks, I suppose, because they consider them ordinary people. But this is their big mistake; there’s nothing ordinary about Tom or Oliver. They’re both calculative and intelligent men who seem to think they’re worth much more than what they have.
The voice of reason for Dickie is his best friend, Freddie. Freddie immediately sees through Ripley’s schemes and warns Dickie to be wary of him. Similarly, Farleigh knows exactly what Oliver is up to before Oliver makes his own plans. For Farleigh, it almost comes from experience, I suppose. He’s also an outsider as a black and gay man. It’s the homophobic late 2000s; he’s the butt of every joke. In another world, maybe Farleigh and Oliver would’ve gotten along well and worked together, taking the Saltburn estate for themselves. Freddie, on the other hand, despises Tom because of his lower class. The massive difference is that Farleigh may be mean-spirited, but he’s a good person at the end of the day. On the other hand, Freddie is simply hateful. Still, at the end of the day, they’re both left to fend for themselves, with Tom and Oliver emerging victorious.
Desperation Vs. Desire
There’s one moment in Saltburn that I found almost taken right out of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and it’s the last scene where Barry Keoghan dances around naked in this massive house all by himself. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, there’s a scene when Tom tries on some of Dickie’s expensive clothes while singing and dancing in the mirror. I guess you could say it’s a sign of freedom for the two of them. For Tom, being in Dickie’s clothes is as far as he can get at that point in the film to what he desires, whereas for Oliver, he’s reached the top of the chain; there’s nothing more he needs to do. There’s an eeriness to the way both of them move, which is both extremely entertaining and a little bit terrifying. I could also compare this scene to that of the one in the bathtub. I suppose what they’re both trying to do is merge into the men they are obsessed with.
At the end of the day, the biggest difference between Oliver and Tom is that Oliver is motivated by sheer desire, whereas Tom is motivated by desperation. Every move Tom makes in the film, small or big, is because of a misstep rather than on purpose. I suppose it should actually be “Talented Mr. Quick” and “Desperate Mr. Ripley,” because at the end of the day, Ripley’s talents are useless when he’s taken over by madness, whereas Oliver knows exactly how to get what he wants, using his mind games. At the end of the day, they’re hardly similar, the two movies, one is a film that romanticizes life in Italy, while the other is a hate letter to the upper crust of England. Vastly different, you see?