Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but only the Getty family is unhappy in a way that justifies two star-studded accounts of the darkest chapter in their history, released three months apart. First came All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott’s theatrical adaptation of John Pearson’s nonfiction book Painfully Rich, about the 1973 kidnapping of then-teenage John Paul Getty III, heir to the Getty family fortune. After Scott decided to recast the elder Getty, played by accused pedophile Kevin Spacey, with Christopher Plummer just two months before the release date, the movie came and went from theaters. (I liked it better than most; you can read my review here.)
Now comes Trust, an FX anthology series created by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Danny Boyle, who previously collaborated on Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. Based on the first three episodes (and how I wish networks would make a habit of just releasing everything they’ve got for review, so that I don’t have to hedge my bets!), these productions are different from, but equal to each other. Neither is an all-timer, but the performances are strong – in particular, Donald Sutherland as the eldest Getty, and Brendan Fraser as a cowboy-styled fixer named Fletcher Chase – and there are enough momentary fascinations to hold the viewer’s interest during slack sections. Both productions are funnier and more engaging than you might expect, considering that the central storyline is about a drug-addled rich teen getting kidnapped in Rome by Mafia-connected hoodlums and traumatizing the extended Getty family, except for John Paul Getty himself, a penny-pinching sphincter who responds to his grandson’s abduction by holding a press conference to declare that he won’t pay “one solitary cent.”
But here, the humor is on a different wavelength. Scott’s was bitter and curdled, and it was anchored in the distress of the teenage victim’s mother Gail (played by Michelle Williams in the movie) whose righteous focus contrasted against her moneybags father-in-law’s lordly contempt. All the Money in the World seemed to take Gail’s point of view, becoming increasingly exasperated and disgusted by the indifference displayed by the family patriarch. In Trust, Gail (played by Hillary Swank) is not the lens through which we filter the action, but one character among many. The series shifts points of view as it goes, laying out the emotional geography of the extended family in Sunday night’s pilot, then focusing on different characters. Episode three, “La Dolce Vita,” is from John Paul Getty III’s point of view. Its time-shifting contents are presented as the scrambled-up memories that play in his head while he’s tied up in a kidnapper’s trunk beside a corpse. Episode two, “Lone Star,” belongs to Fletcher Chase. It has a hyper-stylized quality, fetishizing the character’s cowboy hat, bolo tie, and steel-toed boots, letting Fraser address the viewer directly à la Alfie or Ferris Bueller, and scoring the whole thing with Ennio Morricone-styled Western-blues music, complete with whistling. (I wouldn’t have minded if the entire thing were told to us by Chase in Fraser’s deadpan drawl. At one point, he dismisses all of 1973 as “that mousy-haired, in-between girlfriend of a year, too old for the swinging ‘60s, too young for disco.”)
Beaufoy and Boyle’s humor is detached and quizzical, alternating grim fascination with mockery. They give the Getty kidnapping a modified Coen brothers treatment, alternating satire, domestic drama, cartoon kookiness, ostentatious displays of production value, and shocking eruptions of violence. Continually on the prowl for decadence and absurdity, Trust skims the surface of this frequently disturbing experience like a dragonfly buzzing a swamp. Even the camera flits about like an insect. The opening scene, a party at the Getty estate scored (in ham-handed Forrest Gump style) to Pink Floyd’s “Money,” is done in an unbroken tracking shot that swoops down out of the sky, dips into a swimming pool (like the oft-stolen shot from I Am Cuba), flies over the tops’ of guests heads, then zooms around the estate, even tracking a major character as she descends a flight of stairs.
Harris Dickinson (Beach Rats) plays John Paul Getty III, hereafter referred to as Paul, a long-haired, hard-partying hedonist who’s been living in Rome with his girlfriend Gisela Martine (Laura Bellini) and her twin sister Jutta (Sarah Bellini). He comes back to the family estate — Sutton Place, Surrey, England — hoping to score $,6000 to pay back a Roman restaurateur named Bertolini (Giuseppe Battiston). It turns out to be perfect timing: Old man Getty (Donald Sutherland), hereafter called John Paul, is thoroughly disgusted with all of his male heirs. He writes them off as low-achieving sloths, oblivious to the fact that his parenting incubated their grownup worthlessness. He finds his grandson charming, perhaps because he’s an artist who knows the names of all the pricey artworks scattered around the estate, while his father and uncles don’t even notice them. Paul seems sincere when he’s talking to his grandfather, even though he’s ultimately just looking for a bailout. When John Paul finds out that his grandson is only playing nice for cash, he buys him a plane ticket back to Rome and arranges for a car to drive him to the airport, so early that he won’t have a chance to say good-bye. “Funding a drug habit only encourages further abuse,” he explains later.
The subsequent details are a matter of public record, though there’s some disagreement about the nature of the kidnapping itself. All the Money in the World makes Paul out to be an innocent victim of circumstance. Trust buys into the idea that he tried to stage his own kidnapping (to pay the debt that his grandpa refused to cover) only to have it go badly awry and become a real kidnapping. Aside from a few historical outliers, most experts on the family history think the notion of a staged kidnapping is probably false, although there’s evidence that Paul sometimes talked about it, in a “What if?” way.
Having Paul initiate his own kidnapping complicates the story, though not in a bad way. Even though the consensus is that it didn’t go down that way, a few participants think it’s possible (including the sisters, who were around Paul constantly), and it helps the drama both in terms of action and theme. The arrogance that Paul exhibits when he’s in hiding — at one point demanding cocaine to feed his habit and then briefly escaping to enjoy a night on the town — is further evidence of the Getty clan’s top-down sense of entitlement. This kid can’t even play powerless even when he is powerless. He’s more fruit from a rotten tree. (Because I’ve only seen three episodes, I can’t say whether John Paul resists paying the ransom because he assumes it was all his grandson’s doing anyway, because he’s an asshole, or some combination.)
Boyle cross-cuts everything, though whether this is to keep us interested or to keep himself interested is hard to say. He seems to double his energy level whenever characters are doing drugs, dancing, firing guns, or running away from people who want to arrest or kill them. The series tosses in allusions to classic literature and films, including (of course) Citizen Kane, evoked in exterior shots of the estate, such as a recurring image of a crow pecking at the base of a spike-topped iron fence that marks the property line of Getty’s Xanadu. But the main order of business is gawking at these rich folk and their follies — a time-honored tradition in both film and television, even if it’s not a particularly deep one.
Acidic comedy carries the day. Beaufoy and Boyle have a knack for deadpan expressions of hatefulness, as when John Paul’s butler informs him over breakfast that his grandson has been abducted, and he replies that he can read the paper on his own just fine, then adds, “The butter is too hard.” Sutherland’s performance is so ferocious, at times frightening, that it obliterates any memory of Plummer’s fine work in All the Money in the World. Beaufoy seems to relish writing for a man as dynamically hateful as John Paul Getty, an elderly sexaholic who owns the world but seems incapable of experiencing an authentic moment of joy. Sutherland underplays the character’s mind-boggling awfulness, which of course makes him all the more disturbing. This is a man who lived in an estate big enough to house a town, yet behaved like a Dickensian miser in his day-to-day life, doing his own laundry while staying at hotels and installing a temporary payphone on his property “to stop builders calling their relatives around the world.” Even Fraser’s drawling trickster Chase, easily the series’ breakout character, is an extension of the Getty fortune, drawing wads of cash to solve problems the way gunfighters draw their six-shooters.
Over time, Boyle’s frequently tilted camera starts to feel like the cinematographic equivalent of a raised eyebrow. It’s hard to say what, exactly, Trust wishes to say about the Gettys, rich people, 20th-century America, or anything else, aside from, Wow, these people are really sad and horrible. “When you have everything you could ever dream of, what do you value?” asks Paul’s father, John Paul Getty, Jr. (Michael Esper), a recovering drug addict himself. Then he answers his own question: “Nothing.” “Turns out a rich life is just as messed up as a poor life — it’s just a different kind of messed up,” Chase tells us, paraphrasing the very same Leo Tolstoy quote that I alluded to at the top of this review. Then he concludes, “But you knew that.”