It’d be tough to imagine anyone coming out of All the Money in the World mooning over the absence of Kevin Spacey as avaricious oil billionaire John Paul Getty.

As anyone reading this review must know, director Ridley Scott called on Christopher Plummer (reportedly the director’s first choice, anyway) to replace Spacey–at a cost of $8 or so million in reshoots–when the star of American Beauty and House of Cards found himself embroiled in a welter of sexual harassment accusations. But all that is prelude and history.

Now comes the movie itself, and it’s a nasty, sordid, fact-based 1970s thriller, from a dead-ahead, unsubtle script by David Scarpa (The Day the Earth Stood Still) based on Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, a much better, more complicated book by John Pearson, who wrote, “The name of Getty had become a ‘synonym for family dysfunction.’”

Scott proves that he can still make us sweat and grab the armrests till our knuckles turn white.

It’s all about what happens when Mafia-connected bad guys in Rome kidnapped teenage heir and hippie-ish wastrel John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), who wound up becoming oddly tight with “Cinquanta,” one of his somewhat kindlier captors (Romain Duris). Was the boy becoming connected with the notorious and mercenary Red Brigades?

The movie spends lots of time on Michelle Williams as Gail, the boy’s frantic, divorced mother, who tries valiantly to persuade her unyielding, money-grubbing ex-father-in-law to save his grandson by meeting the hostage-takers’ demands. The miserly Scrooge, utterly lacking in decency and empathy–a stunning, absolutely timely character study in ruthless, sociopathic behavior and corporate greed–won’t budge an inch.

After all, he reasons with Gail, what if other predators storm his gates demanding more of his reported $4 billion fortune and his precious objets d’art? What if Getty III himself is in on the ransom? We get a terrific scene in which we almost believe that Getty is about to relent and pay off the kidnappers; instead, he’s only buying another piece of art.

Also taking up a lot of screen time is Gail’s potential helpmate, a former CIA spook and Getty security advisor armed with hostage-negotiation expertise. He’s played by Mark Wahlberg, who creases his brow a lot to try and convince us that he’s doing some Serious Acting in an Important Film Being Released During Awards Season. He is, in fact, a weak link who, unlike everyone else around him, appears utterly oblivious to the fact that he’s in a period movie.

Director Scott doesn’t spare the ruthlessness or gore. As if to prove that he can Tarantino with the best of them, we get to watch a stomach-churning mutilation-and-torture scene that ends with the Calabrian mobsters sending through the mail Getty III’s famously severed ear.

Still, Scott has directed the flick with malicious, propulsive, take-it-or-leave-it energy. It’s his blunt and bristly thriller, a ham-fisted morality play, a searing but clichéd indictment of the ultra-rich tricked out in both color and black-and-white to give us a sense of time and place.

It’s also filled with period music we’ve heard too many times before. The Zombies’ “Time of the Season”? “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” Seriously?

But then, there are those performances. Williams is strong and resolute as Gail, and Plummer isn’t just good, he’s superb, so comically hateful, a grinning, flinty, greedy Mr. Burns. He’s a monster with five ex-wives, many mistresses and a family riddled with psychoses and illnesses—and he dominates the movie.

And Scott proves that he can still make us sweat and grab the armrests till our knuckles turn white. Just as with Alien: Covenant earlier this year, we just wish he’d held out for a much less generic screenplay. He has an operatic subject on his hands, and he treats it like no more than an efficient, highly watchable but throwaway crime drama.

All the Money in the World

Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.