If one story has shaken the cinematic circuit up, it’s undoubtedly Ridley Scott’s creative decision to re-cast shamed actor Kevin Spacey, following sexual harassment claims, with the acclaimed Christopher Plummer, for his new crime thriller All the Money in the World. It was unprecedented: he would reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes within a month, editing these sequences into the original cut in order to meet the original release date. Many thought Scott mad, wondering just how he could pull it off, delivering a film that overcomes its engrossing production history.
Well, I can assure you of two things: All the Money in the World confirms Scott’s genius, especially with the seamlessness of his transition from Spacey to Plummer, whilst suitably standing on its own feet as a fantastic fictionalisation of its own wholly unusual and unbelievable scandal.
What this scandal involved was the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer). Offered in exchange for a ransom of $17 million, Paul’s grandfather, billionaire business mogul J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), responded with outright refusal: the criminals would play by his capitalist rules. Sending his head of security, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), to lead an investigation into Paul’s whereabouts, Chase is accompanied by Paul’s terrified yet tenacious mother Gail (Michelle Williams). Together, both aim to negotiate with the kidnappers in order to liberate Paul, in lieu of Getty’s ruthless prioritisation of private wealth and commodities over his own flesh and blood.
It may sound a little generic on paper, and in a way its primary plotline is. But what’s so brilliant about Scott’s film is how it manages to extrapolate so much cynical yet necessary commentary out of these downright perplexing events. This isn’t so much a hostage thriller as it is a character study of two complex, opposing personalities: the corrupt Getty and the unrelenting Gail, both sat at the reverse end of the moral spectrum.
With Getty, we get a seemingly incorrigible anomaly, a man who claims to love his family, and yet won’t surrender a slim sum of his extensive wealth in order to save a relative in a moment of crisis. However, he isn’t a cigar-chewing supervillain: he’s a man out of his depth, a Charles Foster Kane-esque character who induces a critical sense of sympathy, by virtue of the fact that he cannot understand a world that doesn’t revolve around money.
With Gail, one sees a mother with ruthless determination, faced with the scrutiny of the media and a patriarchal system of dominant men running the show, fighting against the flaws of both in order to find her son: she’s an outnumbered woman in a male-orientated society, whose ingenuity and spontaneous thinking leads to a number of important decisions made, as she refuses to flitter an eyelid at the behest of Getty and his associates.
It is in their clash that All the Money in the World shines as a fascinating examination of power versus morality, financial versus human interest and the corruption of capitalism in the modern world. It’s genius rests in its subtle manipulation of our expectation in relation to this: we hope that Getty will come around, yet he constantly lets Gail, and subsequently ourselves down. As such, we vie for Gail to succeed independently, to outclass and outmanoeuvre the man who makes the best deals. Scott cleverly encourages this kind of reaction to the action through his clever exploitation of editing and cinematography, in tandem with David Scarpa’s brilliant screenplay: Claire Simpson and Dariusz Wolski’s respective work is phenomenal, leading us to expect one outcome within a number of circumstances, only to pull the rug out from under us, subverting our narrative assumptions. In this way, the film surreptitiously yet necessarily aligns us with Gail: we can’t understand why Getty does what he does, we just stand confused, horrified yet determined to fulfil the narrative drive, the recovery of Paul. It’s a brilliant, nigh-on feminist feat in this regard, assisted by some clever character dynamics brought through in Scarpa’s dialogue.
None of this would work without some worthy performances. If you hadn’t already heard, All the Money in the World ticks this box with vigour on its long list of accomplishment. To clear the elephant out of the room, Plummer, as expected, is fantastic as the morally questionable mogul at the cold heart of the story. With a welcoming grin that hides his callous moral code, Plummer instils a sense of uncertain gravitas that is essential in telling this unusual tale. But it is Williams that truly excels within Scott’s film, evoking a nervous yet steady sensibility as she persistently reaches for everything in her grasp that could help her get a little closer to her son. It’s a brilliant, balanced performance that might be her best since My Week with Marilyn.
I must also briefly mention a name that has, unfortunately, fallen under a number of reviewers’ radars: Romain Duris. As kidnapper Cinquanta, Duris has a challenging task of convincing us of his character’s ethical respectability, in spite of the crime he is partaking in. One particular scene that arouses nightmarish memories of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs will truly test your loyalty to Duris’ suspect criminal, but Duris pulls the act off with confidence.
However, while the themes, performances and technical elements all corroborate the film’s supreme quality, it must be Scott that receives the grandest congratulations. It’s unfathomable how Scott was able to muster the manpower to reshoot, re-edit and release the film in its completed form with such rapidity, without a single whiff of Spacey in the final product: it’s seamless and a testament to his genius. Moreover, this is easily his strongest filmic contribution since Gladiator. While I would certainly avoid the bold assertion that it matches it in quality, All the Money in the World definitely strives to follow in the footsteps of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather Part II, a film that similarly focused on vice, virility and inheritance, with Getty as Scott’s Corleone and Gail as his Kay. In many respects, I think Scott has delivered on the promise of that comparison. Again, I am not putting the two in the same league by any stretch, but it certainly aims to critique capitalism, patriarchy and corruption in much the same way and I admire Scott for that ambition.
All the Money in the World is a tremendous success therefore. With all of the hoo-hah surrounding its production, it can only be a gift from the gods that the film has ended up as fascinating and enthralling as it has. With its interesting application of editing and cinematography, some brilliant performances and a thorough, relevant discussion happening at the heart of the film, All the Money in the World has surpassed middling expectation and become a complex beast worthy of a little analysis and contemplation in the future.