Great Villains Part Two

The Charming Psychopath

The Many Faces of Tom Ripley

In the 1999 Anthony Mingella film The Talented Mr. Ripley, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Marge (much frumpier in the book) knows something’s up with her missing boyfriend, Dickie Greenleaf’s weird friend Tom Ripley. But her Cassandra like prophesies are pooh-poohed as (hormonal) women’s intuition, but she knows. She knows!

Don’t be fooled by that boyish grin.

While the Covert Narcissist must depend on the kindness of codependents (like a vulture circling wounded prey), the Charming Psychopath’s hunting grounds are much higher on the food chain, and therefore he must be in top form. Like an Olympic athlete training for the event, he prepares his body, tastes, voice, and mannerisms to blend in, ingratiate, and win at all costs. His weapons are flattery, acquiescence, sympathy and understanding. He is an expert at infiltrating, blending in, acting the part of the supportive friend, and then suddenly you realize (too late!) that you’ve let a shark in the pool.

It’s all in the lip curl…
…and the eyes.

Like a shark (we imagine), psychopaths have no conscience, no empathy. If they show emotion at all it’s only because they are good imitators and quick studies. They’re excellent actors, but the only true emotion they experience is pure rage. They are smooth in their polished veneers and their lives, but once the key turns, their violence is sudden, aggressive, and deadly.

In the film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Matt Damon’s Tom, is shown to have some redeeming qualities: a soul buried beneath his multi-layered pathology and accumulations of sins, but he has a true passion for music, within his repressed homosexuality is a true capacity for love. Or is that a magicians trick? All done with mirrors.


There is a sense near the end of the film that Ripley’s love for the sensitive Peter will save him. In fact, we’re rooting for him, despite his trail of blood. If only that annoying Meredith hadn’t shown up on the boat Peter and Tom could have sailed off into the sunset together. But it never occurs to the psychopath that now at last the gig is up. I have to fess up and admit my sins and accept my punishment. Oh no, Ripley is sad because he knows he has to kill Peter and he does. He may feel bad about it. He may be sincerely (we are led to believe) weeping during the act of murder, Oh, why are you making me do this, damn you! But the point is, he still does it. Guilt doesn’t cause him to throw himself overboard. He kills, and we realize at the end that any empathy we feel toward Tom is a trick, a mirror’s reflection of our conscience. The psychopath has no conscience and that is the danger.

There is a certain amount of mirroring in every relationship. We often see what we want to see and project our hopes, and our neuroses, onto the other person. But in time, in healthy relationships anyway, the mask is gradually dropped and the real vulnerable person steps out from behind it. Here I am. Flaws and all. Can you love and accept me as I am? But for the psychopath, the mask is all there is, and once that falls there is only the killer.


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