Once you've become unfathomably rich, one thing you have to worry about is people trying to take advantage of you for your money. All the Money in the World is a retelling of one of the most infamous examples of such an occurrence.
What happens when you have everything you ever needed? In the case of All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott’s newest film, it turns you into a curmudgeonly scrooge. Such is the case for John Paul Getty, an oil tycoon who becomes the world’s richest man in the 1960’s and refuses to pay his beloved grandson’s ransom when he is kidnapped. He doesn’t want to create a precedent to allow other nefarious fortune seekers would take advantage of his massive holdings and multitude of other family members. You see, for Getty, his fortune is everything. For the man who never gave any money to charity, parting with it would akin to giving away part of himself.
The film approaches this particular character from history from the perspective of the grandson’s mother, Gail, who by the time of the kidnapping had divorced Getty’s son and was barred from the family’s riches. Her story is one of grief, dealing with both the kidnapper’s demands regarding her son Paul, as well as Getty Sr.’s tight coffers. Through several short flashbacks, the audience is given an idea of the nature of the relationship between the billionaire and his former daughter-in-law. During divorce proceedings we see that Getty Sr. was the one pulling all the strings to try and prevent Gail from getting any of his money via his son’s divorce settlement. Gail only wants custody of her children, and gives up any claim to money in order to secure this right. And so, when her son Paul Getty III is kidnapped, the criminals expect her to pay the ransom, but at that time she is all but penniless.
At the end of the film, a title card reminds us that this is in fact based on a true story, but certain embellishments had been made for dramatic effect. Indeed, Ridley Scott’s latest film is tense. Not just because of the threat looming over the life of Paul, but because of the difficulties in the family relationship, as well as the inconveniences of the press swarming around Gail’s home. Scott very much puts his audience into the shoes of Gail, which makes John Paul Sr.’s behavior that much more incomprehensible. We are given flashbacks that show how the man could possibly be a caring and loving grandfather, and yet when his fortune comes under fire, family moves to his number 2 priority. Getty’s own son hardly knows the man, and in an important early scene Getty tries to tell him how his selfish behavior is excusable because he had his fortune to make.
Getty’s behavior is one of the most interesting aspects of All the Money in The World. We’ve seen many films which document the difficulties of life when you don’t have any money. All The Money in the World does the opposite; it explores the “difficulties” of life when you have too much money. Many of us may not exactly have any sympathy for this sentiment, but nonetheless it’s an interesting exploration into the psyche of a man who devoted his life solely towards the search for more money. We see how everything in his life is approached from a business perspective; misinformation, diversion, legal threats, tax evasion....all used to gain an upper hand on his competition, even if his competition is his own family. It is with this strategy that Getty dispatches the services of one of his business negotiators to try and bargain for his grandson’s freedom. As can be expected, Gail doesn’t appreciate this strategy but has no other choice but to go along with it.
Mark Wahlberg plays the negotiator, Fletcher Chase, and provides a fairly typical Mark Wahlberg performance. That is to say, he is not necessarily a bad fit for the role - we see that he actually cares for the boy despite his employer’s seeming indifference - but he doesn’t really add anything to the character that isn’t already written in. On the other hand, Michelle Williams plays Gail and is easily the highlight of the film. Williams has always been capable of convincingly expressing grief, and this is a role that requires a lot of grief. But William’s performance isn’t just acting sad and angry. That’s what the press wants to see, and Gail knows it. She puts on a brave face, but Williams performance allows the sadness to seep through. Even when she is trying not to show it, we can still see it in her eyes. There’s strength and weakness which lends the film its emotion and drive, full human qualities which contradict what we see out of Getty.
Getty himself is portrayed by Christopher Plummer, of course, who also gives a commanding performance. To Getty, his fortune is what defines him, and any attack on his money is something that he takes personally. It’s him against the world, and against his own father’s beliefs that he wouldn’t ever amount to anything. We’ve already heard so much about how Ridley Scott reshot all of Getty’s scenes in order to cut Kevin Spacey out of the film. Seeing it in motion, the work that everyone did to pull this off is commendable. Plummer’s performance is seamless and fits perfectly with the tone and the energy of the rest of the film. Furthermore, Plummer’s scenes are peppered throughout, not just in a few isolated spots which makes the last minute switch all the more impressive. Plummer’s performance is able to convey the confidence of a man who drives a hard bargain, but there is just a hint of something a bit forlorn beneath the surface which almost makes you feel sorry for him. Almost.
Ridley Scott also deserves credit for making a cohesive film despite the circumstances, a director with less experience would probably not have been able to do it. Evidence of Scott’s fingerprints are all over the place. Visually, the film is a smorgasbord of breathtaking shots and images, making great use of all the locations the film is set in. Getty’s English mansion is a dark dungeon set in a gloomy green countryside, while Italy is full of activity and uncertainty. Each scene is packed with interesting details and textures to the point that the production design is among the highlights of the film. Scott’s use of impeccable lighting and cinematography continues, affording the picture a strong visual interest beyond the dramatic one.
But while All the Money in the World has a compelling story and is well executed, it doesn’t really reach the level of upper-echelon period drama that it was striving to achieve. Part of the problem are the “embellishments” used to make the story more cinematically engaging. There is a lot of melodrama that the film could have done without, making it at times seem more like a made-for-TV film than a top-level production. The backstory is also so condensed that the film has to skip around quickly in order to deliver the details in a logical way rather than have the knowledge develop naturally. Short scenes depicting something that could have been conveyed in words make the production seem unnecessary at times, while at other times seemingly important characters or plot details come and go with insufficient definition. Then there’s the matter of the film’s climax, which is heavy-handedly engineered to create theatrical tension at the expense of historical accuracy.
Granted, pulling off a story with as many moving pieces and history explaining requirements as this one over a 2 hour timespan is difficult. While the plot does cut corners to keep things moving, and layers on unnecessary drama at times to keep things interesting, it is nonetheless effective. Particular credit has to go to the actors and Ridley Scott. Without Michelle Williams’ and Christopher Plummer’s performances, All the Money in The World could have come off as a cheap attempt to exploit an untold story. Without Ridley Scott’s direction and eye for production, the film would have lost a richness and attention to detail that would have otherwise made the film one-dimensional. All of this makes for a film that doesn’t necessarily feel real, but it does feel cinematic.