Most directors half his age would struggle to turn out two major films in one year, but Ridley Scott, true to form, is still rattling through a diverse range of topics at the age of 80. This spring brought us Alien: Covenant, an acid-blooded sequel that was, truth be told, more interested in the antics of a renegade android than the franchise’s toothsome monsters.
In an odd sort of way, period drama-thriller All The Money In The World is also fascinated by people who look like us, but have something decidedly inhuman running through their veins. For most of us, money is just something we need to pay the bills and buy sandwiches. For people like John Paul Getty, in the 1970s the richest man in the world, it’s his lifeblood: certainly more important than passing whims like friends, family, or a little thing like paying taxes.
This causes a problem when his grandson, John Paul Getty III (known to his friends as Paulo), is kidnapped by a bunch of hoodlums in Rome. Knowing the Getty family’s wealth, the kidnappers demand a ransom of $17 million. Getty refuses to pay up, leaving Paul’s mother Gail – well-spoken but divorced and behind on her rent – frantically trying to find another means of freeing her son.
So begins a gripping and macabre bout of detective work and deal-making, with Gail shuttling between her father-in-law, the Italian police and the kidnappers, who ring up at ungodly hours with their latest set of demands. Ridley Scott keeps things moving at the pace of a page-turning crime novel, the tone veering from the blood-curdling to the blackly comic. There’s one early scene where we’re half led to think that Getty Sr (a perfectly surly Christopher Plummer) is about to relent and cough up the ransom money; instead, he’s negotiating over the price of an old oil painting. To Getty, things – and getting a good deal for those things – is of infinitely more importance than people, which is something of a sticking point when he’s met with Italy’s criminal fraternity, where Paul (Charlie Plummer) is essentially treated like another commodity.
A few weeks ago, the run-up to All The Money In The World’s release was overshadowed somewhat by news that, in the wake of allegations of sexual assault, actor Kevin Spacey was being replaced at the last minute by Plummer. On the face of it, staging some late reshoots might not sound like much, but Plummer’s role in the piece is far more than a walk-on part – and it’s a testament to the skill of Scott, Plummer and his team of filmmakers that this eleventh-hour retooling hasn’t made an obvious impact on the movie.
Indeed, it could be argued that the film’s compressed schedule was a help rather than a hindrance. At this stage of his career, Scott appears to be at his best when he’s given a solid script and a looming deadline: The Martian, a project he joined at short notice, was one of his best films of recent years. All The Money In The World arguably joins it, thanks to a smart, drily funny script by David Scarpa and some roundly excellent performances. Plummer made the headlines, and he’s good enough as Getty that it’s hard to even imagine now what Spacey would have been like. But the film really belongs to Michelle Williams, who plays Gail with an iron resolve and a sense of moral purpose lacking from just about everyone else around her. Getty, like the criminals who have her son, seems to be positively drunk on money – it’s as though the stuff is like an addictive substance that makes people ruthless in their pursuit of it. Williams is the one character who can’t be bought; a woman with principles and self-reliance that makes her immediately likeable.
Mark Wahlberg, in a supporting role, is somewhere in the middle as Fletcher Chace, a former CIA agent who’s now Getty’s security guy and well-paid lapdog. Chace likes making deals and driving his Jensen Interceptor (one of many pleasing 70s details Scott and production designer Arthur Max casually thread in), but it’s through Gail, as he starts working with her to get her son back, that Chace’s moral pendulum begins to swing away from his boss’s coldness and towards something approaching a decent human being.
Scott invests each scene with his smokey, defuse light, but he’s careful to let the story just motor along rather than get bogged down in showy filmmaking tricks. As well as an eye for visuals, Scott has a nose for the outlandish and the shocking – it’s there in his infamous chestbursting sequence in Alien, of course, but it can also be found in his more recent movies, too, like the eccentric characters in his flawed but fascinating The Counsellor, or the grisly seven plagues of his biblical epic, Exodus. Scott is never happier, it seems, than when he’s exploring the gorier details of a kidnapper’s ransom demands or the delicious irony of an old miser who cares more about a painting of a mother and child than the real mother and son suffering in his midst.
Ridley Scott clearly had a whale of a time making All The Money In The World – which is partly why it’s also such a thrilling movie to watch.
All The Money In The World is out in UK cinemas on the 26th December.