Danny Boyle has arrived on television. I realize this may not be the major hype takeaway for the FX series Trust. After all, its first season purports to tell a fuller, more expansive version of the bizarre Getty kidnapping case detailed in the recent feature film All The Money In The World, and Noah Hawley aside, the FX drama brand is kind of its own auteur-agnostic thing (yes, there’s also Ryan Murphy, but his acclaimed American Crime Story series seems, like a lot of TV, more writer-driven than director-driven, and Murphy isn’t the writer).
Boyle’s foray into TV also doesn’t have any production circumstances overshadowing the final film the way that All The Money In The World itself was dwarfed news over the extremely last-minute replacement of disgraced actor Kevin Spacey with non-disgraced actor Christopher Plummer, and a salary disparity revealed between stars Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams for the necessary reshoots. It’s also not a momentous television debut, because Boyle, whose work ethic seems at time supernatural, has worked in TV before, back when it wasn’t quite so viable an alternative to the big screen. He directed a number of made-for-TV movies in the U.K. before moving to features, and when he needed a career reset after The Beach, he made a pair of digitally shot telefilms back when digital video was still kind of a scrappy, quick-and-dirty medium. He also co-created the little-seen-in-U.S. series Babylon, and directed the pilot episode.
But Boyle is directing the first three episodes of Trust, and Simon Beaufoy, who wrote Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, scripted nine of the first season’s 10 scripts, which makes this feel more like the next proper entry in Boyle’s filmography, following last year’s underrated Trainspotting sequel and preceding his upcoming musical and James Bond movies. This, to me, feels like an event, because I am something of a Boyle superfan. I like his genre-hopping, I like his restless visual energy, I like that he doesn’t typically take five-year gaps between movies, and instead directed several hours of TV in between his 2017 movie and his 2019 film(s).
Boyle has only just started dipping into the world of fact-based entertainment. 127 Hours was his first feature based directly on someone’s actual life, and Steve Jobs was even more biopic-y (though far less biopic-y than most bad biopics; I like that movie a lot). Trust has the makings of a full-on epic about wealth, dynasties, cultural shifts in the ’70s, the capriciousness of youth, and so on.
After one episode, though, it’s difficult to say whether it’ll get there—both out of fairness and of what we see on screen.
There are certainly signs that the show “belongs” to Boyle from the outset of “The House Of Getty”; the image of J. Paul Getty III (Harris Dickinson) running frantically through tall grass is very Danny Boyle (most of his movies have some kind of frantic foot chase at some point, though usually in the final 30 minutes or so). From that image, the show backs up to a lavish party at the Getty estate, where the camera tracks around the grounds and eventually pushes under the door of a shed (very mid-period Fincher, there, Danny Boyle) to capture the sight of a Getty man impaling himself, very intentionally, as several women watch through the windows in horror.
With this opening, and for a little while longer after that, Trust feels like it might supersize Boyle’s aesthetic for the longer running time: High style that’s more sustained than Boyle’s features sometimes have time for. He has plenty of impressive and/or ostentatious shots in his work, for example, but he’s not especially known for long unbroken takes like that one that first explores the Getty grounds.
This kind of stylistic verve can be hard to sustain for a TV show, though, even a lavishly budgeted one—and again, the Noah Hawley shows like Legion and Fargo are both sort of the exception and the rule here (their stylistic gambits are more sustained than most TV shows, but they don’t always add up to much). And indeed, by the end of its first episode, Trust is busier with plot than with style. It introduces frugal, unforgiving industrialist J. Paul Getty (Donald Sutherland), his harem of girlfriends led by Penelope (Anna Chancellor), some of the children he vocally considers disappointments, and the grandson who bears his name and comes stumbling back onto Getty’s English estate to attend the funeral of his uncle (from Getty’s very first marriage, well before the one that produced the grandson’s father). On top of that, the episode must introduce Getty’s bond with his grandson, only to have that bond broken in more disappointment when it becomes clear that the old bastard is going to make the kid scrape for some money he needs to get out of jam.
As you might tell from the parenthetical asides needed just to explain how everyone is related, it’s kind of a lot. The first episode runs the FX-typical hour-plus without commercials, which itself represents a huge change for Boyle, who has only once directed a movie that runs over two hours: Steve Jobs, which is 122 minutes. The 63 minutes that compromise the introduction to Trust would be about the first half of Boyle’s longest movie, and a solid two-thirds of many of his others. This may be why the first 15 or 20 minutes feel like the opening to a Danny Boyle movie (though some of the music cues—“Money” by Pink Floyd; “Gimme Shelter,” for God’s sake—are not up to the standards of the guy who introduced Pulp and Blur to plenty of American teenagers) and the rest of it come back down to earth. Later in the episode, where Getty invites his grandson into his confidence and begins showing him the ropes of his businesses (at least partially to spite the kid’s father, it seems), there’s some cutting to stock and news footage of the industries that Sutherland describes, but that seductive, intoxicating playfulness isn’t there. The quick cuts feel halfhearted, somehow. It doesn’t help that the younger Getty doesn’t really pop as a character, especially opposite Sutherland’s well-practiced sneer and compellingly vile skinflintery.
That’s not to say that Trust isn’t worth watching. This is, after all, an introductory episode, called “The House Of Getty,” that serves to introduce the audience to a bizarre world where a tycoon can trick his girlfriends into thinking he’ll be introducing another young lady to their group before unveiling his new pet lion, which is apparently allowed to roam free on the grounds (which also include a pay phone for any guests making outgoing calls!). But it does suggest that Boyle, energetic workhorse that he is, is just as susceptible to the sprawl of the modern TV drama as anyone else. It’s hard to tell if he’ll rise to meet the challenge of the show’s presumably considerable ambitions, or if he’ll have to keep plugging away to keep all of his characters and storylines moving. Maybe Boyle’s conciseness and cinematic hedonism wasn’t built for prestige TV.
- Hi, I’m Jesse and I’ll be covering Trust for The A.V. Club! You may know me from my movie reviews, or if you’re a big fan of The Gifted or, ah, Moonbeam City!
- Like an FX pilot, and also most episodes of most FX shows, this review has gone on longer than average. I’ll try my best to keep it Boyle-style concise in future weeks!
- Because it’s probably not that productive a line of critical thought and also not that many people even saw it, I’ll consign my semi-regular comparisons to All The Money In The World to this section of each review, as much for trivial reasons as any other. This week in All The Money: That movie, to my recollection, compresses a lot of the story of this pilot into bits of backstory, and doesn’t spend that much time with the Getty grandchild before he’s nabbed. On the other side, Trust doesn’t seem like it’s going to focus as intently on his mother, played in the movie by Michelle Williams and played in this show (but not, unless I missed something, appearing in this episode) by Hilary Swank.
- Similarly not really present in this episode: Brendan Fraser, in Mark Wahlberg’s part. He’s glimpsed toward the beginning, sporting a cowboy hat (not the look Mr. Wahlberg chose to sport in the Ridley Scott movie… okay, I’ll stop with the comparisons now, I promise). Getting to see Fraser work with Boyle is actually a major reason I’m excited about this show. I’ve enjoyed Fraser since his ’90s heyday and he deserves the opportunity to come back into Hollywood’s good graces.
- I’ll also try to draw some Boyle parallels down here in the stray observations section; this week I’ll say that the Getty grandson’s fecklessness recalls one of Boyle’s least successful movies, the aforementioned The Beach (though I think it’s kind of underrated, if still one of his weaker films). And also: I haven’t seen his post-Beach TV movie Strumpet, which seems to be unavailable in the U.S., but I have seen its companion piece Vacuuming Completely Nude In Paradise, and an early-2000s digital video BBC movie starring Timothy Spall is, let me tell you, worlds away from the 2018 FX polish of Trust.