'Trust': TV Review

Intriguing, but hard to connect with.
3/25/2018

FX's Getty family saga, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Donald Sutherland, Brendan Fraser and Hilary Swank, struggles to find a relatable center.

There is a line in the FX press release for its latest drama, Trust, about the Getty family, those American oil magnates and wealth magnets, which is mildly alarming. It starts: "Told over multiple seasons and spanning the 20th century..."

That might be getting ahead of things.

For starters, no matter the dramatic allure of the unrelenting weirdness and tragedy that beset the sprawling Getty family, recent years have shown that Americans don't have a lot of interest in one-percenter woes, particularly if said one-percenters aren't a likable or remotely relatable bunch to start with. And now the country is ruled by the Trump dynasty, which has taken empathy for powerful, rich idiots off the table.

Beyond that, the recent 2017 movie All the Money in the World, which told pretty much the same story as Trust, failed to make much of a splash at the box office and is known more for its casting and discriminatory pay scandals than anything else.

On top of that, of the three episodes sent to critics by FX, all directed by Danny Boyle, the first is a compelling enough start to the story, but the second features an ill-conceived split-framing technique that seems overly splashy and stylistically incongruous with the pilot; things are made even more jarring in that episode by the addition of one character speaking directly to the camera, which didn't happen at all in the first episode. In the third episode, Boyle reverts mostly back to the style of the pilot, but adds in a random deviation here and there that makes you wonder what future episodes will look like.

Trust is visually uncertain, but Boyle is quick to try to punch things up with a pounding rock soundtrack. And yet, even here the tone sometimes feels off. The Gettys were certainly wild (and J. Paul Getty III, the center of the story, particularly so), but the other family members' debauchery seemed to stem from being achingly depressed and bitterly directionless. It's not a rock 'n' roll kind of vibe.

These are grown children who never quite knew how to please their father, J. Paul Getty Sr., played here with ruthless joy by Donald Sutherland, who quite rightly decides (at least in the early going) to infuse the patriarch with a relentless disregard for everyone else's feelings while shuttering his own in pursuit of endless profit. Getty Sr.'s only joy seems to come from tormenting his harem of girlfriends, each sure she will get a large slice of his fortune.

And yet, it's very clear in Trust that Getty Sr. disdained the idea of parting with even the tiniest fraction of his money, and anyone with ideas of coming into it was probably delusional.

And it's not like there weren't warnings. There's a pay phone in Getty's palatial English countryside estate. He complains to his butler/valet/house-runner Bullimore (Silas Carson) that the cost of the paper went up. All of his kids are complaining about their lack of money, and the man washes and hangs up his own socks and underwear on a pulley in his bathroom. If he's got a dime, it's going to be pinched in his fingers very tightly.

Wealth as a cornerstone for familial rot is a pretty meaty area to mine for a drama. At one time considered the richest man in the world, J. Paul Getty is fundamentally intriguing. But the trouble series creator and writer Simon Beaufoy (whose most recent credit is last year's Battle of the Sexes) runs into almost immediately is that tightwad billionaires who care nothing for other people (even their own blood) make for unlikable central characters. Surround them with an endless number of other characters who fail to ignite empathy in the viewer and you're going to end up with a tragedy (and the Getty family history is filled with tragedy) that lacks the emotional gut-punch it needs. 

You don't have to love Getty Sr. to love Trust, of course. But for a man who shows zero emotion when his eldest son commits suicide (except for saying, almost as an aside at the funeral, that he'll miss their calls), then berates the living ones, there needs to at least be something viewers can glom onto other than his evilness.

The crux of Trust at the beginning is that when J. Paul Getty III (Harris Dickinson) gets in debt to the Mafia while living in Rome and is kidnapped in 1973, none of the Getty boys, including his father, J. Paul Getty Jr. (Michael Esper), has the money or inclination to pay the ransom/debt — and Getty Sr. refuses to, saying that would embolden others to kidnap the remaining kids and grandkids.

The amount owed? $6,000.

So, yeah, it's hard to really feel the love for this lot. Hillary Swank plays J. Paul Getty III's mother, Gail, and though she rises to the role of the sympathetic sane one here, early on there are (justifiable) doubts about what her intentions are; what kind of mother lets her 16-year-old move out just because her new boyfriend thinks the kid is a spoiled brat?

Brendan Fraser is given a meaty role (played by Mark Wahlberg in All the Money in the World) as Getty Sr.'s head of security, James Fletcher Chase, a larger-than-life cowboy prone to cowboy-ish sayings about God and wearing an enormous cowboy hat (while also, by extension or the whims of Boyle, acting as the de facto stand-in for all Americans). Chase is the character who breaks the wall and speaks directly to the camera.

The challenges for long-term viewing here are not inconsequential.

That's not to say that Trust can't or won't get there — especially considering that FX seems, at least for now, wedded to the idea of telling a multi-season story. Only by dint of Dickinson's spot-on performance as wayward 16-year-old wild child J. Paul Getty III, the emotional core of Trust, does the show suggest it has what it takes to grow over the long term.

Without Dickinson nailing the humanity and vulnerability in J. Paul Getty III — even though he's a spoiled rich kid who lets cocaine, booze and naivete ruin him — there's no salvation. But Dickinson does, in fact, nail this performance — the kid is smart enough, he's innocent enough, he could have been molded in some different way if only his father and grandfather had truly loved him (and his mother's boyfriend wasn't an ass). Dickinson let's you see that, of all of these Gettys, he was the one who could have been shepherded to safety.

Ah, but he never was. And Trust is partly hoping you don't Google his fate or already know it.

The series tacks this on after every episode: "This series is inspired by actual events. Some dialogue was created consistent with those events. Various events were combined for dramatic purposes."

That's to be expected — biopics rarely keep the boring parts and there's a seemingly endless supply of Getty tragedy and dysfunction to explore. And even with a competing movie in the universe, plus some respected books, the subject matter is not watered down, nor are its dramatic elements reduced (or even too heightened into make-believe). If you want to experience the full brunt of Trust, at least in the early going, you'll avoid finding out about J. Paul Getty III, while embracing all the Getty family sagas — and there are many.

The question remains, however: How many episodes — or seasons — are you willing to spend watching them be awful to each other?

Cast: Donald Sutherland, Harris Dickinson, Michael Esper, Hilary Swank, Brendan Fraser, Anna Chancellor, Norbert Leo Butz, Charlotte Riley, Luca Marinelli, Silas Carson, Laura Bellini, Sarah Bellini
Created and written by: Simon Beaufoy
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)

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