I enjoyed the first episode of Trust, the new FX limited series outlining the kidnapping and eventual return of John Paul Getty III in 1973, but it didn’t quite convince me to buy into the series. Each of Trust’s 10 chapters assumes the point of view of a different player in the Getty saga, so creator and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy logically begins with the man whose resources, inclinations, and prickly personality lie at the center of its events: oil baron Jean Paul Getty (Donald Sutherland), who by the 1970s was firmly ensconced in the hermetically sealed world he’d built for himself at Sutton Place, his English estate. Animated by the absurdity such isolated wealth enables—swans flattened into roadkill! Lions flown in from Africa just to intimidate one’s harem! Harems!—Trust’s premiere is certainly entertaining. But it also comes off a bit like a super-sized version of the last 10 minutes of There Will Be Blood. “Obscenely wealthy titans of industry are deeply unhappy people whose fortunes exacerbate rather than alleviate said unhappiness” is not a new insight, no matter how cleverly presented or well-acted. Great television can and has been made about the dissatisfaction of the rich: Big Little Lies, Downton Abbey, and even Gossip Girl have all combined voyeurism and human drama to spectacular effect. Yet the first episode of Trust failed to present a compelling rendition of a well-worn premise.
“Lone Star,” Trust’s second installment, singlehandedly convinced me to keep watching—or rather, the character (and actor) who serves as its protagonist. Of the three episodes provided to critics in advance, all of which were directed by Beaufoy’s frequent collaborator Danny Boyle, “Lone Star” is the only one not to foreground an actual member of the Getty family. (Next week’s episode, “La Dolce Vita,” takes on Getty’s grandson John Paul III, the kidnapping victim himself.) Instead, “Lone Star” focuses on James Fletcher Chace, the fixer and head of security Getty dispatches to Rome to retrieve his grandson with deliberate speed and minimal bad-for-business fuss. In All the Money in the World, the Ridley Scott film about the same kidnapping released four months ago, Chace is represented with a workmanlike performance from Mark Wahlberg. Here, Chace gets a much more intriguing portrayal here from Brendan Fraser. In his hour at the helm, Fraser convincingly elevates Trust from a routine piece of cultural anthropology to a lively production that deftly walks the line between cynicism and sympathy towards its subjects. If the rest of Trust lives up to his spotlight, it’ll make for a fine series; if “Lone Star” is the best Trust gets, it’s still pretty good.
Even before Fraser’s performance, Boyle’s style, or Beaufoy’s interpretation figure into the equation, there are certain structural advantages to Chace’s perspective over his boss or his charge’s. Though Chace boasts a colorful past (including a stint in the CIA) that qualifies him as an eccentric in his own right, he’s still far enough outside the standards-warping nucleus of the Getty bubble to serve as a welcome identification point for a disoriented audience. While Chace is being formally appraised of the situation, he meets Getty’s cartoonish British butler, who explains that he tried to inform their mutual employer his grandson was in debt to the Mafia, but “there was a problem with the butter.” “Is he for real?” Chace responds, a welcome in-story surrogate for the viewer’s natural incredulity. Who the hell are these people, who care more about the sanctity of breakfast than an actual person’s well-being? Chace would like to know, too.
Trust takes full advantage of the opportunities such a character presents. Boyle’s famously kinetic direction takes to the pulsating chaos of mid-century Italy the way Scott’s did to England’s chilly grays; here, the filmmaker announces himself with a Scorsese-esque fourth-wall break, with Chace narrating the action from some unspecified future date. Of Trust’s opening trio, Chace is the only character to get such a framing device, cementing the viewer’s impression of him as a relatively objective guide to the Getty madness. “You look back and some years just shine bright in the memory,” he drawls. “But 1973? What can you say about that mousy-haired, in-between girlfriend of a year?” He speaks directly into the camera, which moves with him as he leaves his English hotel and gets into the back of a Getty-issued car. “1973, the year of our lord. The milk went sour. A young kid disappeared.”
Chace is drinking an honest-to-God jug of milk while he tells us this, the first of many delightfully on-the-nose signs that this is a red-blooded American man very far from America. Wahlberg’s rendition of the character is comparatively milquetoast, often substituting biographical detail for personality; Fraser’s Chace, by contrast, projects personality from the moment he walks onscreen, sporting a bolo tie and donning a cowboy hat. (Tellingly, Wahlberg wears a three-piece suit.) Boyle soundtracks his scenes with a Morricone-like score, triple-underlining what Chace’s cowboy boots, American-flag neckerchief, and Texas drawl have long since laid out. Subtlety is for suckers, and Fletcher Chace is anything but a sucker.
Once Chace arrives in Italy and begins to search for Paul, “Lone Star” briefly turns Trust into a procedural—think Law & Order: Roman Expat, or CSI: Oil Fortune. The real Chace, at least in the view of Painfully Rich author John Pearson, was a bumbling incompetent who erroneously concluded the younger Getty faked his own kidnapping, thereby unnecessarily extending his ordeal for months. Trust, however, takes Chace’s side. The man certainly has bluster, throwing around briefcases filled with cash, pronouncing “I’m here to sort this out fast” and “I have the means. In dollars.” But he’s also a patient and thorough investigator, following the evidence—a note without a ransom demand, a shaky timeline, a fruitless negotiation with the Mafia—to where it leads him. Chace takes no pleasure in informing Paul’s mother Gail (Hilary Swank) that her son is deceiving her. (In a convoluted series of events outlined in next week’s episode, the fake kidnapping eventually turns real.) He’s unfailingly warm and empathetic. He’s also here to do his job.
Fraser himself is the key to keeping Chace fundamentally likeable, even as he’s inadvertently condemning a teenager to months of captivity. In real life, Fraser has experienced a surge of goodwill thanks to a recent GQ profile outlining his decision to retreat from, and eventually return to, a public career. But while background knowledge of Fraser’s life can certainly influence the viewing experience—the actor is a passionate equestrian, and during an otherwise serious meeting in Getty’s study, Chace takes a horse figurine, plays with it, and neighs under his breath—it’s not necessary to appreciate his performance. The same rock-solidity that made him a good action hero in the ‘90s also qualifies a middle-aged Fraser to serve as the steady eye in a raging storm of wealth, ego, and resentment. He may not figure prominently into the rest of Trust, but he makes a crucial introduction to its world.