Ridley Scott’s second film in 2017 is an account of the abduction of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) in 1973, his grandfather John Paul Getty’s (Christopher Plummer) refusal to pay the ransom, his mother Gail Harris’ (Michelle Williams) efforts to finance the ransom, and the role played by Getty Oil negotiatior Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) in brokering a deal with the kidnappers. To some extent, the film was eclipsed by the allegations that were levelled at Kevin Spacey, who initially played Getty, just prior to its release, and which resulted in all of Spacey’s scenes being quickly reshot with Plummer instead. On the one hand, that increases the stately austerity of the film as a whole, since you could almost assume Plummer had been instructed to define his performance against Spacey’s, so austere and remote does it become by the film’s final stages. At the same time, however, the sudden injection of Plummer gives All the Money in the World a somewhat provisional and spontaneous quality that ensures that the stately grandeur of his actual performance can never quite generalise itself into an aesthetic principle of the film as a whole, and certainly not of the scenes in Italy, where Getty III is being held by his abductors in isolation.
To an extent, that provisional atmosphere makes All the Money in the World play out like a telemovie, with daytime melodrama quickly coming to feel like the natural register for outlining a protagonist who was “not just the richest man in the world, but the richest man in the history of the world…the first man in history with an excess of a billion dollars.” The patriarch to end all patriarchs, Getty is here presented in historical silhouette rather than as a fully-formed character – as a figure who was already larger-than-life during his own life, and who has become even more emphatically set in stone in retrospect. It’s hard, then, to even think that Spacey was ever in this film – it would have been an entirely different film – with the presence of Plummer’s own grandson as Getty III giving his presence an inevitability and inexorability that sits well with Getty’s own belief in the providential value of prudential financial decisions. As a result, whereas directors like Steven Spielberg (in The Post) and Clint Eastwood (in The 15:17 to Paris) have moved away from the dim, muted, classicist palette that dominated American period drama for so much of the 2000s, Scott here doubles down upon it, making for a film that barely exists in colour, or that only exhibits the slightest traces of colour across its mise-en-scenes, which are always on the verge of segueing into historical stylisation, especially when set in England and America.
Getty’s spaces, in particular, are almost entirely black-and-white, from the marble-clad austerity of the Getty Oil Building, to the black and white tiling of the Getty Estate, to the murky gloom of his private study, so dim and dank in its cavernous recesses that Scott might almost have retained some of the scenes featuring Spacey and got away with it. So granular and textural is the darkness of these sequences that it almost feels digitally contrived, just as Getty’s body language quickly reaches a kind of total and immoveable stasis that feels impossible for an actor to achieve with their body alone. That’s all enhanced by the radically different aesthetic used to outline the scenes featuring Getty Jr., which start with a neorealist nod in the direction of Nights of Cabiria in which he’s abducted while cruising his favourite Roman strip, and then proceed to a much more frenetic, frantic and kinetic approach to space, punctuated by bright bursts of light that are too violent to process after such sustained and immersive darkness. In the process, we’re too disorientated to learn much about the kidnappers, allowing Scott, and screenwriter David Scarpa, to stagger our approach to them in quite an artful way. At first, it seems as if they might be communists, and that this represents an act of class war; then, it seems as if it might be an act of terrorism. Finally, we learn that they represent a faction of the Calabrian Mafioso, only for them to hand over responsibility for Getty III to a prominent industrialist and “investor” in abducted children, who enjoys a good working relationship with the medical establishment and the police, and who is willing to deal with Getty III much more frankly as a commodity.
In the process, as Getty III becomes more disoriented by the rapidly shifting terms of his abduction, Getty himself grows more intractable and unmoveable, resulting in what amounts to two entirely separate films – a stately melodrama for Getty, and a handheld docudrama for Getty III, shot through with a terrorist content content aesthetic around its fringes. As Getty III’s body is put under more and more duress, Getty becomes more and more disembodied, culminating with the supreme remoteness from which he regards the infamous spectacle of Getty III’s ear arriving in the mail. Yet part of the genius of the film lies in the way in which it eventually brings these two apparently incommensurate aesthetic registers together under the impetus of market forces, since while the abduction might initially present as an eruption of everything inimical to Getty’s world – a gesture of class warfare – it actually turns out to be the canniest financial proposition ever put to him, which he manages to turn into the best deal of his career to date. For all his bluster about not wanting to put his other grandchildren in danger, it’s clear that Getty can only really engage with Getty III’s situation by waiting for a way to invest in it – and a compelling incentive to invest in it – with the tipping-point finally arriving as a confluence of factors: the pressure of the 1973 oil embargo, the media circulation of the photography of Getty III’s dismembered ear, and, most critically, Getty’s discovery that the first million dollars of the ransom can function as a tax writeoff if he makes it out to Gail as a particular form of short-term loan.
While the abduction might not start out as a political gesture, then, it almost inadvertently becomes one, if only because of how eloquently it distills Getty’s moral vocabulary into the market forces that dictate his life and world. The final horror for Gail is therefore realising that she has more in common with the abductors than she does with her own father-in-law, or at least that he is as much of an enemy to her as he is to the abductors, culminating with his own act of abduction, in which he only agrees to pay the first million dollars of the ransom – the tax deductible part – on the condition that she relinquish custody of all her children – Getty III included – to his immediate care. As Gail is faced with the horrifying prospect of recovering her son from one abductoronly to give him up to another, Getty becomes even more remote, unknowable and “other” than the abductors themselves, as his whole capitalist ethic, rather than the spurious and speculative motivations of the kidnappers, is revealed as the driving force behind the film’s profound sense of alienation and alterity. It’s here that Spacey really works as an absence, making Plummer himself seem more absent as well – his whole performance plays on a kind of metaphysics of absence – especially as Plummer seems to have defined himself so emphatically against the more theatrical brand of charisma that Spacey would have brought to the role. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if All the Money in the World comes to be seen as the defining text about the Spacey moment, sequestering him, as it does, in a sudden and inscrutable absence that makes his original presence almost possible to discern or conceptualise amidst the gloom.
That gloom settles thickly over the film once Getty makes the deal, even or especially as the neorealist element of the opening scenes returns in the closing sequences as well. While the financial responsibility of the abduction might change hands, the kidnappers themselves never quite lose their paisan quality, culminating with the young boy who slingshots a stone onto a windscreen to alert Gail and the police that they are nearing the handover point. The final efforts to locate Getty III after he has eluded the kidnapper’s grasp could also easily play as the conclusion to an early Rossellini, De Sica or Pasolini film, presided over by Getty in his inviolable manse, where he succumbs to a stroke before setting off his strobe-lit alarm system in an attempt to remove a priceless Vermeer from his wall in a state of extreme disorientation. Debilitated by the deal at the very moment he makes it, Getty – and Plummer – vanish from the film as quickly as Spacey did before them, removing even the most residual paternal solace for Getty III once he returns – his own father, John Paul Getty Jr., is a hopeless drunk – and instead presenting him with an echo chamber of absences that is, in some ways, even more disorienting than the spaces within which he was held captive. Certainly, his paisan captors end up being the closest he comes to any genuinely consoling, compelling – or captivating – father-figure, and in that paradox lies the peculiar and profound sense of tragedy than animates All the Money in the World, and which will almost certainly be invoked – and possibly revised – by Danny Boyle’s serialised version of the abduction and negotiation in the first season of Trust, due for release midway through 2018.