Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 23 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain.
This also is vanity.
What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
Set during the 70’s when oil magnate J. Paul Getty was the richest man in the world, director Ridley Scott’s film is based on the 1995 book by John Pearson, originally titled Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty. That was a good title, as the numerous scenes in the film following the kidnapping of Getty’s 16-year-old grandson Paul (Charlie Plummer) in Rome will make excruciatingly clear. While demonstrating the vanity of the old man’s worship of Mammon, the dark film’s brighter side focuses upon the fierce love and determination of young Paul’s mother Abigail (Michelle Williams).
Gail, as she is usually called, had lived in seeming contentment with Getty’s son John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) in San Francisco until he was hired by his father to work in the firm. Proving useless in business, the hapless man had retreated into alcohol and drugs, his behavior leading to bitter divorce negotiations in which father and grandfather used custody of the boy (he was seven in the flashback sequence) as a bargaining chip. Gail eschewed the usual vast sum of alimony money in exchange for the son, even though the father could not, nor wanted to, care for him.
Getty is so wrapped up in his money that he at first turns away the messenger bearing news of the kidnapping. He does not want to be interrupted while reading the ticker tapes of his stock transactions. At a press conference on the steps of his palatial English estate, reporters ask how much he would pay for the safe return of Paul. With a slight shrug of his shoulders he replies, “Nothing,” a heart-chilling answer that does not make up for his later explanation that his paying ransom would only encourage other kidnappers to snatch one of his other grandchildren. He claims to love his grandson, but his actions indicate that he loves money more.
Gail determines not to just sit by in America while the kidnappers contact her, but sets forth to negotiate both with the criminals and with her former father-in-law. She is aided by Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), the Getty family’s head of security, appointed to that position because he had worked for the CIA and thus knew well the ins and outs of protection and high-stakes negotiations. Their relationship is tense at first until she gradually learns he can be trusted—to the scriptwriters’ credit, there is no attempt to follow the usual Hollywood romantic arc.
There are numerous suspenseful scenes of the teenager and his kidnappers, including an almost successful rescue attempt by the Italian police. Also, in a separate incident the lad manages to escape for a brief time before being recaptured. There are two groups of kidnappers, the first, less powerful gang, sells Paul to a wealthier and more ruthless group whose head can afford to wait for the months-long negotiations to play out. Thus, when the police raid the hideout of the first criminals Paul is gone.
It is difficult to say which is the more wedded to the god of money, J. Paul Getty or the ruthless mafioso who orders his captive’s ear cut off and sent to the billionaire to make him aware of the seriousness of the boy’s plight. Probably the businessman, as suggested by several scenes. At a lavish hotel in which Getty is staying he does not try to hide the socks and underwear hanging to dry in the bathroom, telling his visitors that he refuses to pay someone to do his laundry. At his English country estate fit for a monarch, he has installed an iconic red pay telephone booth, rather than allow his guests to make calls from the houseline. And during a visit by schoolboy Paul he instructs the boy, “A Getty is special, a Getty is nobody’s friend.” During the kidnapping Getty often refuses to even let Gail in to see him, and when she does talk with him, he seems deaf to her pleas. Thus, during one of her phone contacts with the kidnappers, she plaintively says, “You have to give me some time here. I’m fighting an empire here.” Indeed, as days turn into weeks, and weeks into months, the kidnapper caring directly for Paul, known as Cinquanta (Romain Duris), seems to be more concerned for his charge’s welfare than the grandfather.
Much has been written of Christopher Plummer’s last-minute filling in for the disgraced Kevin Spacey. Mr. Plummer is so effective that I cannot imagine anyone else in the role. The English actor, who can also be seen on the screen as J. Paul Getty’s forerunner, Ebenezer Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas, effectively conveys the cold isolation of the kind of man described by Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes and Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. I went home and reread the little book that the portrayal of Getty called to mind, The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In this fantasy Lewis describes Hell in terms of the isolation between its denizens—Hell is a vast suburb in which no one wants to live next to another, so it keeps expanding as people keep pushing each other away.
How Gail’s persistence is rewarded at last makes for tense viewing, with the filmmakers adding a fictional denouement that really is not necessary, other than to add one last measure of excitement. When the elderly J. Paul Getty goes the way of all flesh, we see the huge mansion that he left behind is filled with art treasures—sculptures, paintings, tapestries, and carpets, forcibly reminding me of the final scene of another worshipper of money and its power, Citizen Kane. Sadly, Ridley Scott’s film is a true story, a finely wrought visual parable of greed. We must add that a mother’s love and persistence are also well portrayed, but it is the tragic portrait of the kind of man condemned in above two scripture passages that dominates the film.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the January issue of Visual Parables.