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TV Review: ‘Trust’ on FX

A stylish, multilayered new miniseries tackles the infamous Getty kidnapping of 1973

With:
Donald Sutherland, Hilary Swank, Harris Dickinson, Michael Esper, Brendan Fraser, Anna Chancellor, Norbert Leo Butz, Charlotte Riley, Laura Bellini, Sarah Bellini, Luca Marinelli, Silas Carson

Of course FX’s new miniseries “Trust” tends towards the overwrought. It’s a 10-part miniseries based on the real-life botched kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III (Harris Dickinson), which would have been fine — and possibly wouldn’t even have happened — were it not for the inhumane stinginess of his grandfather, the world’s richest man, J. Paul Getty (Donald Sutherland). (All three Gettys named “J. Paul” just go by Paul; the initial appears to exist just to emphasize how full of themselves they all are.) If the repetitive names aren’t already a too-confusing detail, the particulars of the oldest Getty’s personal life make for quite a doozy. The old man has an estate, a butler, and a harem — four women, all of whom have signed contracts stipulating their financial rights (or lack thereof). He drinks egg yolks mixed with Worcestershire sauce in the morning and has an aide read him erotica in the evening (to prepare him for one of the members of his harem). And yet amidst all this luxury, he still finds the time to obsessively count his pennies. The Getty estate has no free phone; guests are shown to a pay phone booth, set up in the lobby. In the premiere episode, his long-suffering butler Bullimore (Silas Carson, reminding us that there is no other kind of butler than the long-suffering kind) has to gently inform his master that the cost of the Times of London has gone up tuppence, to all of 15 pence. Sutherland — who is having the time of his life playing the disgusting old man — pulls out every stop on his querulous harrumphing, writing down the new price in the account book he carries on his person.

Trust” succeeds because it is about wealth as a disease. There are other threads to the show, and those threads are occasionally worthwhile. But the core of it engages with the corrosive heart of capitalism — embodied, almost too well, by the unbelievably monstrous soul of Getty the patriarch: an efficient and mercenary oil tycoon, a Scrooge who delights in manipulating the lives of those around him. In a way, he’s defensible. Almost all of those people, from his secretaries to his sons, choose to withstand his toxic presence because he’s where the money comes from. Getty takes advantage of their venality to play his little games — like setting the harem women against each other to prove who loves him most, or inviting a barely tamed lioness to a posh dinner party. In a motif so dramatically heavy-handed they might be in a perfume ad, groundskeepers usher black swans onto the lawns of his estate, Sutton Place. When they are later killed — beheaded and plucked — it’s an unsubtle way of underscoring the blood underneath the pristine beauty of luxury.

In 1973 — what erstwhile narrator Fletcher Chace (Brendan Fraser) calls “a mousy-haired in-between girlfriend of a year” — Getty finds himself in dynastic crisis; his chosen heir has killed himself, so the dry-eyed patriarch must find a new successor. Through a combination of random chance and pointed disdain for his remaining sons, he alights on Paul — a 16-year-old living off of his art in Rome, who washes up at Sutton Place looking for a few thousand dollars to satisfy a debt. There could not be a more abrupt generational divide between the elder Getty and the younger: In that prim estate, Paul is a bohemian wearing jeans and thanking the serving staff. “Trust” plays up the symbolic differences between the two, in the ways the camera cuts between Getty’s orgiastic luxuries and Paul’s carelessly bare feet. At the same time, the lens finds sturdier commonalities underneath the superficial differences — a love of fine art; a weakness for women; a determined independence, even when it’s inconvenient. The heavy-handedness continues apace; in a lovely but obvious moment, Paul goes for a swim in a pool whose water is so black and viscous that he appears to be drowning in the crude oil his grandfather drills out of the earth. At first it seems that perhaps Paul is just immersed in the ill-gotten wealth of his not-so-environmentally friendly grandfather. But gradually the broader arc of “Trust” emerges — the story of how being a member of one of these famously wealthy families has far-reaching, tainting consequences. The proximity to billions rots one’s soul — and Paul, despite his teenage innocence, is not above reproach. When his debtors come calling, he makes a plan to fake his own kidnapping — with unintended, disastrous results.

Naturally, much of “Trust” is imagined — from a foundation of verifiable fact, but with plenty of creative license. The 2017 film “All the Money in the World” told a version of this same story, and the incident was covered contemporaneously and since then in biographies like John Pearson’s “Painfully Rich.” Viewers already familiar with the story will see a lot of discrepancies. At the same time, though, creator/writer Simon Beaufoy and director Danny Boyle justify their liberties with stylistic touches that evoke the struggles of the characters — and the atmosphere of the era. It’s a bit tired to cue up Pink Floyd’s “Money” when depicting fabulous Californinan debauchery, but it’s never been more fitting — and meanwhile, in Rome, graffiti exhorting the reader to heal the world coexists with paramilitary skirmishes in the streets. And best of all: Just when you think “Trust” might be weighed down by the corruption of the wealthy, Fraser’s Fletcher Chace just starts talking to the camera — directly to it! — as if suddenly, two episodes into the show, he’s remembered he’s supposed to be narrating the piece. Chace is Getty’s fixer, an ex-CIA operative with a cowboy hat, a bolo tie, and a perpetually beaming smile. I feel comfortable asserting that Chace is the best performance of Fraser’s career. The character’s totally unearned Texan levity serves as the interpretative lens for the entire miniseries, and Fraser — along with the series’ editors — find a way to make smashing comedy out of his aggressive pragmatism. Chace is the oracle of the series, the one who cuts in to observe that these people are all cuckoo bananas. Watching him bop around Rome is an unexpected joy of “Trust,” but arguably its best feature; an injection of levity in an otherwise quite sober portrait of a family. He goes to Rome to handle the kidnapping and to help out Abigail (Hilary Swank, wonderful as always), Paul’s mother. Fraser and Swank make for delightful scene partners, not least because as two characters most removed from the Getty fortune, they are the only two well-adjusted humans in the cast.

With just three episodes granted to critics, it’s hard to anticipate where this imaginative history piece will go. But for once, this is a story that feels like it might be worth the investment. It’s offering multiple thematic layers for entry — including a pretty bonkers magical realist layer, starring an apparently omniscient statue-performer, that maybe has to be seen to be believed. But maybe best of all, “Trust” offers a plot with significant dramatic stakes, even if the end is already a foregone conclusion. This kidnapping appears to have transformed this family, and in a way, it transformed the narrative of wealth around this family, too. This snapshot of this family is a window into how the worst crisis of their lives put them through a crucible.

And, beyond being a story about a family, “Trust” is a metaphor for American evolution. Getty, the capitalist, can’t understand the entitlement or the sensitivities of his heirs — because he’s willfully ignorant to the toll of being in the shadow of a conquerer, of the burden of carrying his name like a brand. And though Getty himself died in 1976, billionaires as a constituency have only expanded their power over us. “Trust” has something relevant to offer us today — if only to remind us what type of people end up having enough money to own the world.

TV Review: 'Trust' on FX

Miniseries, 10 episodes (3 reviewed): FX, Sun. Mar. 25, 10 p.m. 60 min.

Crew: Executive producers, Christian Colson, Simon Beaufoy, Danny Boyle

Cast: Donald Sutherland, Hilary Swank, Harris Dickinson, Michael Esper, Brendan Fraser, Anna Chancellor, Norbert Leo Butz, Charlotte Riley, Laura Bellini, Sarah Bellini, Luca Marinelli, Silas Carson

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