‘Trust’: Thrilling, stylish and the best miniseries of the year

Not since Jude Law on The Young Pope has a TV drama gotten such good value from a single actor’s face. And what a face Donald Sutherland has: his furrowed brow and shark’s grin, ever-adaptable hairline combined with a caramel voice. He’s truly one of America’s most valuable screen actors, and Trust — FX’s ten hour account of the 1973 Getty kidnapping and the various absurdities and misfortunes surrounding it — squeezed his talents and presence for all they’re worth, resulting in one of the most compulsively watchable central performances in recent memory. That Christopher Plummer received an Oscar nomination for playing the same part, that of J. Paul Getty I, in such a relatively muted and unmemorable manner, is evidence both that TV is where real talent is allowed to parade, and that Plummer was acknowledged not so much for what he did onscreen as the short timeframe in which he did it. Trust’s first episode dwells on his luxurious lifestyle in his English manor; superbly directed by Danny Boyle, a delicious brew of recurring images like black geese waddling around the estate, Rolling Stones cues (repeated throughout the series) and the underlying sense that Getty is the most awe-some figure alive.

But Trust isn’t all about Sutherland: in fact, he’s absent for a number of the 10 episodes as the story’s focus shifts to his grandson JPG III and his kidnappers’ escapades in Italy, and the attempts of fixer Fletcher Chase to return the boy home. As Chase, we have the incomparable Brendan Fraser, doing something just short of a Thomas Haden Church impersonation. Of the show’s cast, his performance has been welcomed most as a ‘revelation’ given his several-year absence from acting and surprisingly competent dramatic abilities.

I have a special fondness for Fraser given he was still one of Hollywood’s foremost action stars in my early childhood, and his fourth-wall breaking in Trust is seriously delightful (in the finale he tells us to “Google” something… in the 70s!) but his performance occasionally feels a bit flat as the writers struggle to give Chase any real motivations. His arc is tied up nicely with a familial reunion in Episode 10, but for the early part of the season he’s more just a swaggering embodiment of American masculinity, and a really good one at that. Hilary Swank is the best she’s been in years as JPG III’s heartbroken mother; she and Chase take a very Fargo-esque journey into snowy rural Italy that reveals Swank and Fraser’s strong chemistry. Silas Carson pops as Getty’s inscrutable butler Bullimore, quietly pursuing a romance with the groundskeeper. However, the most striking turn of the show in my opinion came from stage actor Michael Esper as JPG III’s substance-fuelled father.

As the role demands, Esper gets many of the series’ Big Acting Moments and he works them brilliantly; he wishes to save his son while also refusing to be caught in his father’s manipulative financial traps. Likely the series’ best episode was its seventh — Kodachrome — an Esper showcase exploring his tragic relationship with Getty over the years and ultimately using “Coming Back To Me” by Jefferson Airplane (one of my favourite songs, and something I’ve very precious about) so well that I forgave their minor theft of the song from the A Serious Man soundtrack.

The song choices throughout the series were genuinely impeccable, as was James Lavelle’s score. Episodes like Kodachrome (which wasn’t even directed by Boyle) used motifs of screen projections as both framing devices and techniques to keep the action humming along. It’s astonishing that everyone involved was able to make a 10-hour show about rich people problems so involving; I constantly felt that Trust was exactly the show I would have wanted to make given the premise and resources available.

When my interest in the show waned from time to time, it was consistently during the JPG III/kidnappers subnarrative, which involved lots of Italian shouting, guns pointing at faces and sprinting through cornfields. Covering this story was a necessity to fill 10 hours of TV, but maybe Trust would’ve worked just a bit better at 7 hours.

I doubt there’s a soul alive who could argue the superiority of Ridley Scott’s All The Money in the World — which couldn’t even make this story seem exciting for a mere 2 hours — to this terrific series. Scott simply hasn’t the imagination nor sense of humour to tackle this kind of Stranger Than Fiction environment in an interesting way. Danny Boyle and his collaborators, taking influence from filmmakers like Sorrentino, the Coens and even Wes Anderson, constructed a near-perfect example of the high calibre filmmaking possible on the small screen today. But I would’ve been happy just to stare at Donald Sutherland’s face for 10 hours, so don’t take my word for it.