dir. Ridley Scott
reviewed by Dakota Drobnicki
Consider it a Christmas miracle that this film is even out there and available to see right now. If you haven’t been caught up with the behind-the-scenes drama regarding Ridley Scott’s newest thriller, maybe you remember its first trailer featuring Kevin Spacey as the oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty. His performance was supposed to be Sony’s big centerpiece for awards season, a surefire magnet to draw in Oscar and Golden Globe wins. Was.
Once the ever-snowballing allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Spacey (some of whom were minors when the alleged incident occurred) began to tumble down and destroy his career, Sony was now faced with a dilemma: either find some way to get Spacey out of the movie or choose not to release it at all. Delaying its release was not an option if they wanted to remain eligible for this year’s awards season. In an era before digital cameras and intermediates, they likely would’ve chosen the latter option, or at the least would’ve delayed it until the Spacey controversy blew over.
Thankfully, Sir Ridley had a wild, unprecedented idea: replace Spacey entirely in the six weeks between then and the movie’s planned release. Scott’s original choice to play the eldest Getty was The Sound of Music star Christopher Plummer, who recently became the oldest Best Actor winner for his performance in 2010’s Beginners, but Sony went with Spacey since he would be the more bankable star of the two. When it came time to throw out Spacey’s material, Scott pulled in Plummer to reshoot every scene in just over a week. That shoot happened over Thanksgiving break.
The original trailer is still available to view, where Kevin Spacey can be seen holding hands with a young boy and wearing an off-putting amount of old man makeup, almost making him look like a doughy monstrosity. Christopher Plummer is 88 years old, and thus he’s far more age-appropriate for the role in the first place. According to the film’s editor, Spacey’s take was a tad more lighthearted than what Plummer provides here, which sounds like a pretty bad combination when you consider how weird the makeup looks on him.
Let it be known that even if Spacey’s material was kept, I would still be sitting here offering you an objective perspective, separating art from artist. It would’ve been difficult to do considering the nature of some of J.P. Getty’s scenes in this, but I would’ve tried my hardest. While I don’t know for sure how Spacey’s take fits into the movie, I can tell you that Plummer is an excellent replacement, and I’d love to see him take home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for it, even if only to spite Spacey.
In this installment of “This Ain’t Star Wars!”, we’re looking at one of the two adult-oriented drama options you’ll have in town as an alternative to seeing The Last Jedi. It’s likely that both this and Downsizing are going to flop at the box office during such a crowded season, but they’re more designed for awards season recognition than blockbuster-sized profit margins anyway.
In 1973, Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) was kidnapped by a faction of the ‘Ndrangheta over his connection to the billionaire oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, no relation), seeking a ransom of 18 million dollars. They contact Paul’s mother, Abigail Harris (Michelle Williams), but since she had divorced from the Getty family she had far less money or bargaining power with Getty than they’d hoped. Getty makes a public statement refusing to pay the ransom, but hooks Harris up with Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative who works as a private negotiator and advisor for Getty.
As the months in captivity and failed negotiation attempts go by, Paul is eventually sold to another ‘Ndrangheta faction who, among other more aggressive tactics, cut off one of his ears and mail it to a newspaper. This particular incident pushes Getty to finally pay the ransom, but Paul isn’t quite out of the woods yet. The race is on for Harris and Chase to find Paul before the ‘Ndrangheta do.
There is no less hyperbolic way to say it— this is one of Ridley Scott’s best films in a long, long time. Mind you, I was a big fan of this summer’s Alien: Covenant, not to mention The Martian, but this is honestly a better film than either. The tension is thicker than a Dairy Queen milkshake, without a single bad performance in the bunch. Michelle Williams takes center stage, tasked with portraying a desperate mother held hostage herself by her own family connections, and provides one of the best lead performances of the year.
Plummer is a captivating figure all his own as J.P. Getty, with an arc that would in and of itself provide solid material for a full-on biopic if Scott had so desired. Plummer grows frailer, more paranoid and insular as the film goes on, with his worries for his grandson overshadowed by the fear of losing his fortune to an impending oil crisis. He develops an addiction to not only money, but fine arts dealing and villa construction, believing “things” to be more reliable than people.
(For example, his initial refusal to cooperate was based on Paul cracking jokes in public that he’d arrange his own kidnapping to extort money from his grandfather. This initially led Harris and investigators to believe that was indeed the case, until it became clear the kidnapping was real.)
If you hadn’t known that Plummer was only in the movie to cover up for a disgraced actor who they’d already completed the movie with, it’d be hard for you to even notice. Plummer’s insertion is mostly seamless, especially since his performance is both excellent and consistent with the other actors here.
There are a few noticeable seams, however: the scene with Getty in Jordan couldn’t be reshot, so they use Spacey’s take for one wide shot and then digitally insert Plummer into a closer angle— the latter is the only bad-looking shot in the entire film. At the end, Harris is looking at a bust of Getty sitting in his collection; in medium shots of the scene, it’s still the original bust with Spacey’s likeness, but when it goes for the closeup, the new bust is detailed to the point of looking like they just covered Plummer’s face in makeup.
One shot I kinda wish they kept from the original trailer is this really nice wide shot where Getty walks away from the army of reporters sitting outside his estate. It’s the only shot I’m aware of that Scott didn’t even try to replicate, and I’m guessing they couldn’t get the extras playing those reporters to come back or something like that. In the movie, they cut away to a shot inside the estate where you can see him doing so through the window.
The most surprising performance comes from Romain Duris as Cinquanta, one of Paul’s initial kidnappers who has a concurrent arc of his own with Paul’s. After Getty refuses to pay the ransom, Cinquanta cannot believe that his own family wouldn’t come through to help him, citing Italy’s cultural emphasis on family. He develops an emotional connection to Paul that strengthens after Paul is sold to another chapter of ‘Ndrangheta, taking care of him and bargaining for his new captors to mutilate less of Paul than they initially intended. He was the one who talked them down into only cutting off Paul’s ear.
(**THIS FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS**)
However, it should be noted that the movie does take an unbelievable number of dramatic liberties with how the story plays out. The final foot chase scene through the streets of Italy, dramatic and tense as it may be, never actually happened— Paul was found near a gas station as the release terms were meant to play out. Getty dies around the same time Paul is found, but in reality, Getty didn’t die until 1976. Abigail Harris was never tasked with going through Getty’s collection, and in fact lived out her days afterward in obscurity. I mean, these scenes fit the narrative and are poignant in and of themselves, but it’s a pretty major deviation from reality that these events didn’t happen as depicted.
The editing also had a major fault that bothered me throughout: I was never given a solid sense of the timeframe the events take place in. There will be adjacent scenes that take place around the same time of day, creating the false illusion that the kidnapping really only took a matter of days. It’s paced as if communication between the kidnappers and the concerned parties were happening over modern services, when in fact the mail sent any which way would take several days to reach any given destination. There’s one mention of several weeks passing by, but it doesn’t feel like that’s the case. I wish they would’ve added dates to scenes with major events to establish a solid timeline.
If you’re someone who prefers serious dramatic fare to popcorn entertainment, this is the choice for you this season. Really, other than Downsizing, it’s your only current choice for such fare if you stay in Bemidji for the break. If you go to the cities you might be able to see The Post and probably more of the Oscar contenders, but if you’re stuck in town, you’ve at least got those two really good options on your hands.
In other Getty-related film news, here’s a bonus recommendation: check out this year’s The Evil Within (not related to the video game), a disturbing horror film that the late Andrew Getty, a cousin of Paul III, filmed over a 15-year period before his death in 2015. It was one of my favorite films from the first half of the year, and it’s worth your time if you’re a horror fan.