Christopher Plummer stepped in on short notice to replace Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott’s fact-based kidnapping thriller, which stars Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg.
Twilight years? Ridley Scott will hear none of it — he has just made the paciest, most dynamic film ever made by an 80-year-old director. And as for Christopher Plummer, he delivers the best screen performance ever given by an actor who, a month before the film’s debut, hadn’t even been cast yet. These two old pros show what they’re made of in All the Money in the World, a terrifically dexterous and detailed thriller about the Italian mob’s 1973 kidnapping for ransom of the grandson of the world’s richest man, John Paul Getty.
It may be that all the hoo-ha about Plummer replacing the disgraced Kevin Spacey at three minutes to midnight will actually increase public interest in a gripping film that otherwise had little advance profile and is unfortunately arriving on the scene too late to have been seen by critical awards groups. All the same, the Sony release provides a welcome alternative to the assorted franchise leviathans and long-ballyhooed specialty titles in release over the holidays.
It should be said upfront that Michelle Williams is also outstanding as the heart of the film, the mother of sweet-looking 16-year-old Jean Paul Getty III (appealing Charlie Plummer, no relation, also seen recently in Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete). In the opening scene, he is pulled off a Rome street and thrown into a van by Red Brigade ruffians, to be held until old man Getty, now a British subject, forks over $17 million for his return, a demand that is refused.
What follows is a tense thriller wrapped in one-of-a-kind circumstances. David Scarpa’s script, based on the 1995 book by John Pearson originally titled Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, efficiently supplies the nuts and bolts of the abduction and its aftermath. But the film is at its best charting the determined behavior of the mother, Gail Harris, who is grief-stricken but also imaginative and resourceful in her approach to numerous adverse circumstances. Given that her useless husband, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), is a dissolute druggy strung out in Morocco with Mick Jagger, it’s essentially up to the virtually penniless mother to try to free her son.
It’s a true-life yarn loaded with extremes, of wealth, personal eccentricities, grief, tension, daring, criminal means to political ends, maternal drive and luck, both bad and good. It is also a peek into a rarefied world where money knows no bounds and yet means everything.
The opening scene could scarcely be more intoxicating, as La Dolce Vita comes back to life while the camera moves slowly down Rome’s teaming Via Veneto late at night in glorious black-and-white. Boyish, long-haired young Getty seems very much at home here, sparring good-naturedly with some ladies of the night before being aggressed and whisked away.
The filmmakers take a risk by immediately interrupting the present-tense drama with flashbacks that both illuminate the sources of the Getty wealth (a scene showing the American oil man purchasing vast tracts of empty Saudi Arabian desert land in the late 1940s carries strong vibes of Lawrence of Arabia) and provide a look at family life chez JPG II, his wife Gail and their kids, including then-7-year-old JPG III, in burgeoning hippie-era San Francisco (where, very anachronistically, the film has it snowing at one point).
However, the quickly dispatched glimpses of the past do provide useful insight into the old man’s eccentricities (he’s so cheap he installed a red London phone booth inside his country mansion, forcing guests to pay for outside calls) and his relationships with family members. “A Getty is special,” the tycoon confides to his little grandson, “a Getty is nobody’s friend,” while also showing him around Hadrian’s Villa, which he claims as a former home since he was the Emperor Hadrian in a previous life. Also revealed are Gail’s priorities: When she and her husband split in 1971, she forewent any money in exchange for full custody of her son.
Gail therefore has little but unending resolve and sheer pluckiness to call upon, other than for the services of former Special Forces and CIA operative Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg). This handsome, diffident guy knows how things work in the world of high-stakes good guys and bad guys and can get dirty things done. He can also provide access and protection she wouldn’t have otherwise, while she has surprising instincts and guts in the face of vast challenges.
Scott moves the dramatic story along at a propulsive clip that never flags. The young captive is initially kept at an isolated farmhouse by a faction of the Red Brigade, a violent left-wing urban-terrorist organization that specialized in kidnapping for large ransoms. Little time is spent on the internal dynamics of the group, which almost at once seems fraught with tension. But the young Getty is mainly looked after by a combustible ruffian named Cinquanta (Romain Duris), who rather takes a liking to his charge.
Commanding the most screen time is Gail, whose distress and frustration are increasingly surpassed by moods that encourage her to leaps of boldness and imagination. The woman’s background is never revealed; Williams affects what sounds like a very slight British accent, but what this protean performer most impressively does is to push Gail beyond the stock “I just want my son back!” type of hysterics to a point where the character seems to be oddly feeding on her anxiety in a way that makes her more creative and strategic.
Williams and Wahlberg develop some nice odd rhythms in their back-and-forth. Fortunately, any temptation to cook up an intimacy between them has been resolutely resisted, but a bit of layering in the script for Wahlberg’s seen-and-done-it-all character would have been welcome.
As it is, Gail and Chace are always on the move, sometimes to legal and press offices, other times out to see Getty at his country estate. Considerable appalling humor is generated by the old man’s staggering cheapness and orneriness, which make Scrooge look like a world-class humanitarian. But the filmmakers gratifyingly give him more dimension than this caricature. His initially astonishing refusal to pay any ransom at all is at least fractionally rationalized by his belief that, if he paid, it would provoke an open season on the kidnapping of his 14 other grandchildren.
To be sure, he’s a mean old crank, parsimonious and callous to an extreme. But he’s also a unique figure and a genius of sorts who’s not just held up to represent the far extreme of human privilege and disdain for others. Christopher Plummer confers Getty with an authority and sense of resolve so complete that we’re entirely seduced into thinking we’re getting a taste of the real man, of what it’s like to be so far above the fray of normal human concern. What could have been simply a tasty cameo is fleshed out just enough to go beyond caricature into something truer and deeper, to get a real sense of the power of a self-made man who has traveled so far as to have become something entirely singular. The fact that the actor could step into this role on a moment’s notice and achieve something so precise and resonant — and which will no doubt be remembered as one of his most iconic performances — is an astonishment to be prized.
Unavoidably, the scene in which the kidnappers, after four months of frustrated waiting, slice off young Getty’s right ear in order to press the seriousness of their demands is central, and it’s adroitly handled for requisite impact, but without sensationalism.
End credits acknowledge that some liberties have been taken with the historical record in the dramatization, but only specialists will likely take issue with them; there’s a shoot-out with the radicals, young Getty is seen escaping at one point, and the manner of the exchange of money for the boy seems oddly illogical. Most egregiously, the old man’s death is indicated as coinciding with his grandson’s return, which was not the case at all.
The locations are terrific, as are all behind-the-scenes contributions by Scott regulars, including cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Arthur Max, costume designer Janty Yates and editor Claire Simpson. Daniel Pemberton provided the fine score.
Production companies: Imperative Entertainment, Scott Free, Redrum Films
Distributor: Sony, TriStar Pictures
Cast: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Timothy Hutton, Charlie Plummer, Charlie Shotwell, Andrew Buchan, Marco Leonardi, Giuseppe Bonifati, Nicholas Vaporidis
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: David Scarpa, based on a book by John Pearson
Producers: Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas, Quentin Curtis, Chris Clark, Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Kevin J. Walsh
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Arthur Max
Costume designer: Janty Yates
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Editor: Claire Simpson
Casting: Carmen Cuba
Rated R, 132 minutes