In case you're wondering whether the last-minute dropping of Kevin Spacey ruined Ridley Scott's movie about the 1973 kidnapping of billionaire J. Paul Getty's grandson, I can testify that there's barely a technical seam showing in All the Money in the World. Scott is a master craftsman who re-shot Spacey's scenes in nine days without turning a hair. And Christopher Plummer, fresh off playing that other Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas, brings a mischievous pinch of irony to his turn as the world's richest skinflint, who won infamy for refusing to pay the $17 million ransom demanded by Italian kidnappers of his favorite grandson, John Paul Getty III. Charlie Plummer, no relation but also very good, plays the vapid boy who's carried off in an ancient microbus while cruising hookers in Rome.
Still, Spacey's replacement is not the story here, if only because All the Money is less a Getty biopic than a pounding thriller beefed up by Gail, Getty Junior's steely mother, who battles to secure her son's release. As such, it is very much Michelle Williams' place to shine, abetted — in a gratifying low key — by Mark Wahlberg as the former CIA agent and Getty sidekick who helps her recover her son in the teeth of Getty Senior's cunning recalcitrance.
Bouncing around in time and place (Getty had an abundance of scenic European mansions, we learn, in which to wash and line-dry his undies and charge visitors for their phone calls), the movie hits the ground running as a caper, with the grab carried out by Mafiosi who is at once vicious and comically inept. Young John Paul's minder, a sympathetic, if dimly-bulbed fellow, is played with artfully dabbed dirt on his face, and an oversized Italian accent, by Romain Duris, who's noticeably French. Pasta will be reliably guzzled while you're waiting to see how Scott handles the lopping of the young heir's ear, to be dispatched to his relatives by regular mail as proof that the young wastrel remains alive for now. I'll just say that the same orifice removal in Reservoir Dogs pales in comparison.
In its last hour All the Money ratchets up to an elegant thriller, albeit one that, the filmmakers openly admit, fiddles somewhat with the facts. But even with a screenplay (by David Scarpa, based on a book by John Pearson) that groans with backstory exposition, the movie is more slippery at completing the thought its title implies. From Citizen Kane to There Will Be Blood, American cinema is awash with filthy-rich monsters, and nothing could be timelier right now than an inquiry into the character of a man who sees all of life as a commercial transaction in which he must outwit adversaries he can't trust.
What shapes a man who is capable of using his grandson, already a hostage to unscrupulous evildoers, as a bargaining chip with which to settle scores with his daughter-in-law? Plummer's Getty is an operator at once wily and pathetic, a man whose only rule-book is the art of the deal, and whose every human interaction is guided by extracting more profit or outmaneuvering those he regards as adversaries. He craves family but treats his relatives with less care than he brings to the beloved paintings that never talk back.
All this is on the record, but we come to see Getty more fully through the discerning eyes of the only player in this tawdry drama who has his number and shows herself willing to stand up to him. Williams plays Gail as a woman under enormous, sustained stress, yet possessed of a maternal core so strong that no hurdle, especially those thrown up by Getty, can stop her efforts to rescue her son. Money can't buy her, and though there's no telling if Gail's role in the rescue's serpentine twists really happened this way, it's Williams' tightly wound, calculating performance that juices the movie's thrill ride of a last hour, and turns it into a revelation.