FX’s new true-crime series, Trust, focuses on the fall of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty’s (Donald Sutherland) dynasty. While its on-the-nose title ascribes the Getty clan’s failures to a deficit of trust, the series also emphasizes the complete lack of empathy that contributed to this downfall. Series creator and writer Simon Beaufoy sees the Getty family as an insufferable lot of individuals who don’t appear to like, let alone trust, each other.
Sutherland portrays Getty as a sneering, malevolent force, disdainful of everyone, including the mistresses he keeps at his English mansion. The man isn’t just difficult, but also impossible. He installs a pay phone in Sutton Place, and charges guests for calls. He stocks his lawn with black swans, and at one point thoughtlessly runs one over on his way out of the manse. The series homes in on his eccentricities, wrongly assuming that they amount to an interesting character simply because they’re stranger than fiction.
Echoing Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, Trust doggedly highlights Getty’s most abhorrent tendencies, desperately attempting to convince us of his immorality. He’s presented as an incorrigible bastard, even before his grandson is kidnapped and the tycoon refuses to pay the ransom. Trust may succeed as a portrait of hubris, but there’s no pathos to underscore the tragedy of Getty’s declining dynasty. He regularly laments his floundering heirs, comparing himself unfavorably to Joe Kennedy. Getty’s would-be successor, J. Paul Jr. (Michael Esper), is a drug addict who neglects his own son, J. Paul III (Harris Dickinson), and the old man’s other sons want nothing to do with their father outside of eagerly awaiting to inherit his money.
Even J. Paul III, whose kidnapping is the Trust’s central narrative, can occasionally be as repugnant as his elders. The 16-year-old lives a bohemian lifestyle in Rome, borrowing money and mooching free cocaine off of his underworld connections with only his family name as credit. When his Mafia lenders come to collect what’s owed to them, he concocts a plan for them to fake his kidnapping and get the money from his grandfather. They grow impatient, though, and he’s sold to a more vicious Mafia syndicate. The nagging fact that his mistaken feeling of invincibility created this mess dulls whatever sense of sympathy might be engendered by his kidnapping.
When Getty learns of the kidnapping, he holds a press conference to declare that he won’t pay “one single, solitary cent” for his grandson’s release. He assumes that J. Paul III has staged his own disappearance, a view shared by most of his family. Beaufoy is drawn to the obvious correlation between greed and paranoia in the Getty clan, and that notion is established early on but isn’t complex or textured enough to sustain an entire series. By the time Getty begins his wrongheaded, stubborn ransom negotiation, Trust has already long-exhausted its overriding assessment of the man’s accumulation of poisonous riches. We’re simply left to watch a foolish family’s hopeless infighting, while being shown that none of them deserve to win.
Danny Boyle directed the first three episodes, and his stylistic flourishes are evident in colorful nightclub scenes, and in the depiction of J. Paul III’s coke binges. The little irreverence that can be found in the series is relegated to scenes that focus on Fletcher Chase (Brendan Fraser), Getty’s ex-C.I.A. head of security. Chase, a self-styled cowboy, is imposing but well-mannered, honest, and level-headed, and Beaufoy and Boyle seem to grasp that he’s the only respectable figure in Getty’s life. Chase’s scenes have a breezy quality, and Boyle sometimes features the man speaking directly into the camera, assessing the Gettys’ dysfunction with an incredulity that matches our own.
The outcome of J. Paul III’s kidnapping is known to history, and Trust struggles to mine the saga for new insights. The story is shocking, if only for Getty’s inhuman callousness, but the creators make their own miscalculated assumption: that sordid headlines are inherently interesting, and worth reliving. Trust fails to find one Getty character worthy of their fortune, and seems content to merely gawk at a dynasty engineering its own decline.