A few years ago, I was on the periphery of a group of critics who made much of its love for the work of Tony Scott. After he died, the revaluation of his films became a noble pursuit, a form of tribute to a man we thought would be working for at least another decade but who had vanished one day without warning. An extensive series of articles, each of which exuded a sincere love of Tony’s wild, plastic cinema, were published here on the Notebook. I haven’t revisited many of Scott’s films since then; my priorities have shifted, and I look elsewhere for inspiration. Still, part of the appeal of somebody like Tony Scott—who, we maintained, was a bad-taste artist hiding in plain sight—was that you would, in the course of spending the holidays at your parents’ house, say, catch a glimpse of his movies on television. Or find his towering masterpiece in a DVD bargain bin while paying for gas. And my affection for Tony Scott has endured that way, in fragments, here and there, in less than ideal circumstances. I like it that way.
But another form of tribute has always been in dutifully trudging to see his brother Ridley’s latest films in the multiplexes. I don’t mean that I’m maintaining an auteurist blood-bond in seeing these films, a pilgrimage to anything adorned with the Scott name. Simply that I always liked the gorgeous animated logo that prefaced the films produced by their joint enterprise, Scott Free. What I like about the short sequence that builds to the logo is precisely what I treasured about Tony’s work: the bold contours of the image that ripple and sway as the camera moves, as the figures in the frame jostle and break into a sprint, as space itself distorts. Seeing it in 3D before The Martian was a particularly beautiful experience. Everything I liked about it was amplified and distorted, and the animation’s accentuated flicker was startling, reigniting my dashed dreams for a three-dimensional film by Tony. There were whispers in the auteurist rumour-mill that Tony Scott himself was responsible for the logo, though a quick Google Search reveals otherwise. It is the work of an Italian animator named Gianluigi Toccafondo. In any case, it’s an aesthetic experience that’ll always make me think of the termite pictorialism of Tony’s movies.
Both Scott brothers were inconsistent, and both made films in formats and genres that I basically have no interest in. But Ridley’s failures, of which there are many, are more artless than Tony’s. I don’t think Tony would have many anything quite as hackish as All the Money in the World, the second 2017 release by Ridley, which is fascinating inasmuch as it is a project without a slither of personality, a programmatic work of pure plot. Scott once had a flair for narrative, a talent at combining his interest in poetic design with the mechanics of plot. Part of what’s depressing about his career trajectory is how quickly that evaporated; how he, soon after a couple of notable early successes, became a purveyor of flashy, humorless, workmanlike prestige pictures. I’d wager that All the Money in the World, after only a couple of weeks in cinemas, would likely have already receded from the public imagination were it not embroiled in two big Hollywood scandals. The former, of course, concerns Kevin Spacey’s troubling excision from the film, surgically removed like a malignant tumor, while the second stems from a gender pay disparity for the resulting reshoots, in which Mark Wahlberg was paid 1,500 times as much as his co-star Michelle Williams. Scott had previously stated that the actors, besides Christopher Plummer, brought on to replace Spacey, had worked for free.
This film, whose would-be subject is the intersection of business and ethics, about a limitlessly wealthy businessman refusing to pay his grandson’s ransom while spending lavish amounts on classical art, was superseded by two real-life instances of a ruthless world of business in which ethical lines are violated in the name of self-perpetuating profit. In the case of this reported pay gap controversy, even Michelle Williams' forgoing of her usual fee out of gratitude to the producers for their swift response to news of Spacey's alleged abuses—however dubious the symbolic act of erasing him from the film is in the first place—was subverted by her co-star's business-like efficiency in negotiating a huge fee for the reshoots. These two disturbing stories cloud what little there is of the film itself. Researching this piece, I found that any discussion of the movie was almost secondary to its significance as a cultural artefact, as was the case with James Gray’s Two Lovers in 2009. And like anybody, I’m drawn in by stories of backstage betrayal and Hollywood iniquity. The movie, which is fascinating only in the sense that it so undistinguished, will likely endure as a footnote to these turbulent times.
Actually, the film mainly put me in mind of Claude Chabrol’s Nada (1974), about the kidnapping of the American ambassador to France by a group of violent, idealistic leftists; Chabrol would doubtless have been a good fit to make a film about the Getty affair, and it's possible that Nada, which was shot around the same time, was indeed influenced by it. In Nada, he's clearly sympathetic towards the kidnappers, a group of people rendered for the most part outside the usual caricatures of leftist. He takes pleasure in indulging their anti-social, terroristic behavior, inasmuch as it can be viewed as their amoral expression of hatred towards the bourgeois ethics Chabrol had spent a lifetime sending up. Unlike Scott, whose hostage figure is a handsome teenager subjected to the cruel whims of an unthinking Red Brigade, Chabrol doesn’t hesitate to make the kidnapped ambassador a ridiculous figure, a non-presence on the periphery of the film. He’s abducted at a high-end brothel in Paris, in a wonderfully pathetic scene. Chabrol puts little faith in him as a character; it’s clear that making him a dimensional presence would inevitably shift our sympathies, even if we were drawn to the politics of the leftists and were disgusted by the Ambassador’s decadence.
By the end, I did kind of admire Scott’s willingness to stick with the screenplay’s simplistic message that moneyed people are irredeemable. But the identification device Scott unthinkingly subscribes to—portraying the young Getty as a victim of both left-wing naivety and the callousness of a merciless businessman—struck me as a cop-out. In the film, Michelle Williams' Gail, the boy's mother, is blindsided by her father-in-law's frugality and struggles to assimilate her image as a person of wealth with the reality that she has no access to the family's fortune for leverage. We're supposed to be outraged not at this man's wealth or his spurious political connections but by the fact that he is parsimonious to a point, that he pathologically conducts every aspect of his life as a heartless business transaction. What I really admire about Chabrol’s approach is his flattening of the material: he scrupulously cultivates a slight distance from the drama, so that we observe the unfolding catastrophe with a chilly detachment. As the cops descend on the leftists’ country hideout at the end of Nada (in both films the hostages are relocated to a sprawling rural paradise with animals and machinery overgrown with weeds), it becomes clear their objective is not to save the Ambassador but to slaughter the group responsible for his abduction and make a spectacle of their death. Chabrol’s camera records their deaths with icy precision, and having been guided through the procedures that lead to the attack, we feel the full weight of its extra-narrative implications on our shoulders. The distance from the dramaturgy pulls us back to observe the goings-on without much involvement. In comparison, Scott’s perspective is disorientingly scrambled; he lacks the punctiliousness of Chabrol, and so falls back on convention (the One Good Bad Guy, the shadowy and villainous Mafioso figure, the benignness of the police, et cetera). Scott can’t overcome the basic problems of the screenplay, then, because he has so carelessly replicated its basic forms of identification. The script is banal, but the film didn’t have to be.
In something like The Martian, which I think is pretty awesome, Scott was able to draw us into the sense of play called for by the script. In that film, the central conflict was like a puzzle to be solved in a limited Hawksian setting by the characters, played by Damon, et al, with a self-awareness of the fun to be had. There’s nothing in the first two thirds of All the Money in the World that isn’t pure plot transmission. It's based on the most literal-minded kind of narrative expediency and is a total chore to sit through. It makes the occasional visual flourish—self-consciously stylish asides that briefly break-up the bland two camera shot/reverse-shot staging—even more insulting. Even as the movie branches out in the final stretch, the determinism is still there in every shot and every gesture, it’s just that it’s no longer hewn to a single, oppressive drive. I longed for Nada’s unclouded reserve, or for Tony Scott’s Auerbachian density of form, or even for the self-consciousness of the players in The Martian, who garrulously invite us to partake in the pleasure of fiction-making. Everybody has off days, of course, but they are rarely this revealing.