Barely pausing for breath after Alien Covenant, Ridley Scott pressed on and made this true crime drama about the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III – then, when the rolling chaos of the filmland sexual harrassment scandal meant that the presence of Kevin Spacey as the Getty grandfather would be a considerable hindrance to the movie, Scott essentially made it again but with a more age-appropriate Christopher Plummer in the role. I recall someone saying about The Godfather that Lee J. Cobb would have been just as good as Brando in the title role but wouldn’t have needed the makeup and wouldn’t have put on such a blantant display of acting. Plummer, an actor people have been underestimating for decades, is so good here that it’s almost a shame the film isn’t more focused on the very strange billionaire rather than his former daughter-in-law Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and not-very-useful fixer Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg). When the dropout kid (Charlie Plummer) is snatched in Rome, his grandfather airily refuses to accede to demands for seventeen million dollars on the grounds that if he paid up all his other grandchildren would be kidnapped – but we also get a sense that the guy, who does his own hotel laundry to save a few lira and instals a phone box in his mansion so guests can pay for calls, is also neurotically cheap about everything … even as he buys artwork on the black market and earns fast fortunes daily thanks to the ups and downs of the oil business during the ‘70s crisis.
The script, by David Scarpa (the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still) from a non-fiction book by John Pearson (biographer of Biggles), has that slightly baggy, inspired-by-a-true-story feel which keeps skating over big questions – like why the kidnappers even bother trying to put the squeeze on Gail, who plainly has no money of her own – in order to stage well-written and –acted confrontations. The segments dealing with the sufferings of the kid, who famously had his ear clipped, appropriately have some of the feel of a 1970s Italian crime movie – with Romain Duris in a Tomas Milian sort of role as Cinquanta, an outlaw who almost bonds with the waiflike victim, and there’s an escape attempt that shows the rich lad has some grit but also falls into a convention that’s been a cliché since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that the first car which a fleeing escapee flags down will be driven by someone who takes him back into danger. There’s a complex situation involving the ‘ndrangheta (the Calabrian mafia), the red brigades, arty druggy dropouts, pestilential paparazzi and cops who seem to have even less interest in getting the kid back alive than the old man does. The film stumbles on to 132 minutes, but Scott stages the suspense sequences with casual brilliance and an eye for the picturesque – using misty countryside or a cobbled town as a backdrop, and suggesting that the whole country is in on the scam (a gaggle of nice little old ladies get the job of counting the ransom money).
If you want to know what happened to the kidnappers (not much) and their victim (he became Balthazar Getty’s father), you’ll have to check out wikipedia – since the film zigzags away from the kidnapping story near the end, and gets back to the weirdness of the Getty family. In a year when The Evil Within, the long-gestating film debut of John Paul Getty III’s brother Andrew, finally appeared, it seems that interest in the family and this case has bubbled up again – one reason for Scott’s haste with this is that there’s a Danny Boyle TV miniseries on the same subject due. We get glimpses of the middle JPG (Andrew Buchan), a drooling drug addict who ran away to Marrakesh with Mick Jagger, but spend most time with Gail, who earns the old man’s respect even as he uses these appalling circumstances to force her to revisit a custody negotiation and penny-pinches over the amount of ransom money which is tax deductible. Plummer plays Getty as a significant sacred monster — somewhere between Citizen Kane, Daniel Plainview and Donald Trump – whose warped values betoken a form of mania. Plummer’s final scene is among the most distressing simulations of sudden onset illness I’ve seen in the cinema – one of the more unsettling things about being an older actor is having to decline and die over and over on screen even as actual mortality looms. But it may be that the keynote of the film — the thing that makes it relevant beyond its footnote source material, and which would have played uncomfortably with Spacey – is the way that a smart, intelligent, feeling, resourceful woman has to bite her lip and not fulminate against this monster because he has the power to save or destroy someone she loves but seemingly lacks the attention span or emotional range to be very much bothered.