Some films are embroiled in controversy and fade into obscurity, slipping beneath the waves and ending up forgotten by the industry at large. A rare few weather this storm and emerge stronger for it - so it is with Ridley Scott's powerful depiction of the events surrounding the kidnapping of Paul Getty III, the then 16-year-old grandson of exorbitantly wealthy and infamously frugal oil tycoon John Paul Getty, played with marvelous aplomb by a dominant Christopher Plummer, a worthy replacement for Kevin Spacey amidst the bombardment of allegations of sexual misconduct aimed at the latter.
As a film that revolves around a kidnapping plot there is some suspense and enjoyment to be gained from the regular proceedings, to be sure. The direction is competent, the writing ample enough to ratchet up the tension when the plot calls for it. But the movie, thanks to the deft touches of writer David Scarpa - who seems to have found his footing after the middling works that were The Last Castle and 2008's odd remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still - is elevated into becoming something higher, something greater: a character study focusing on a most unique and cupiditous character indeed.
The film frequently calls into question the nature of money, whether or not it is truly the so-called root of all evil and how it can both poison and provide. The film spares no expense in detailing the seemingly uncapped limits of Getty Sr's avarice. His immortal dismissal of the demands of his grandson's kidnappers - “I have 14 grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren" - is still retained, made all the more colder and pragmatic by Plummer's delivery, and he is frequently shown to be a thoroughly inveterate hoarder casually negotiating the purchases of masterpieces while his son is left in the grasp of his captors. Indeed, Paul even forms a strange sort of bond with their leader Cinquanta, played by an equally demanding yet gentle Romain Duris. Even the efforts of Gail, Paul's long -suffering and nigh-destitute mother desperately concerned for her son's safety and so often met with Getty Sr's aloof refusal to aid her, and Mark Wahlberg as Fletcher Chase, an FBI agent reluctantly recruited by the aging billionaire to assist in negotiations, do little to change the man's stolid demeanor. Utterly rapacious, fetishistic in his obsession with material and monetary gain and with a mood as capricious and fickle as the stock ticker that he examines with a sense of acutely unnerving zeal, Getty Sr is an enduring reminder that for every benefit the coin can bring, it can harm in ways both overt and insidious. As Wahlberg succinctly encapsulates, "There's nothing people can't find a way to turn into money."
Not only bolstered by a mesmerizing central performance, Scott and his colleagues put their catalog of filmmaking expertise to good use through the use of simple yet strikingly effective imagery. From Getty Sr. stepping off an ominous train onto land practically bursting with oil, the locomotive spewing towering smoke as it approaches, to Paul Getty III's ethereal and dreamlike stroll through the streets of Rome moments before he is abruptly spirited away, Ridley's regular partner Dariusz Wolski utilises the surroundings in a menagerie of ways to keep viewers spellbound, and lets the composition of shots speak just as loudly about characters as one of the many money-related speeches the film has to offer. This is a product that does not let its turbulent creative process rob it of iconic imagery and genuine substance, and it wears that fact like a badge of honour.
There are drawbacks, of course - as with so many things that focus on historical events, there are dashes of rather conspicuous poetic licence scattered about the wider piece, and certain scenes in particular are heavily fictionalized for the sake of leading the audience along. Additionally, at times, Scarpa's script seems more reliant on making points about money and the nature thereof than actually permitting most characters beyond Plummer's withered miser and Duris' strangely affable kidnapper to display true emotion. The actual body of the work is also rather rote and procedural, and at times even praiseworthy performances can't quite conceal the occasional bout of drabness.
Even so, this is a film that defies the expectations of many, proceeding undaunted by Plummer's last-minute addition to the cast and drawing out his very best to create something that is not perfect, but certainly worthwhile - a decent thriller, a compelling if slightly overbearing examination of the darker side of wealth, and something ultimately worth viewing.