By Linc Leifeste | September 13, 2012
Director: Nicholas Jarecki
Writer: Nicholas Jarecki
Starring: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta, Nate Parker, Stuart Margolin
Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is a highly successful hedge fund magnate on the verge of two milestones, turning sixty and selling his highly regarded company for a huge profit. But, not all that surprisingly, things are not what they seem. Miller has discreetly invested heavily in a risky but potentially lucrative financial deal that has fallen apart and has cooked the books to hide the losses. His daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), the company’s chief information officer, is unaware of her father’s financial indiscretions. Now Miller has to keep the books cooked long enough for the sale of his company to go through, no easy task when there are auditors swarming around looking at everything.
As if that’s not enough duplicitous dealings to keep one man busy, he’s also trying to balance his seemingly happy home life with his increasingly rocky relationship with his mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta). Unlike Robert’s wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon), who is willing to exchange fidelity for financial well-being, Julie is growing increasingly demanding on Robert’s time, expecting more from the relationship. All that pressure leads Miller to make a snap decision that leads to his involvement in a deadly accident. Faced with finally losing the one thing that ultimately seems most dear to his heart, the appearance of respectability, he does what he’s apparently been doing for all of his adult life and walks away and tries to hide his tracks. But Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) is soon on his trail and it seems to be only a matter of time before Miller’s intricate webs of deceit unravel.
Far from an original film, Arbitrage is well crafted enough to hold the viewer’s interest, quite a feat considering that the financial improprieties that the film details are ripped from four year old (and oh so tiring) headlines. While we’ve seen all of the elements of Arbitrage before (financial shenanigans, infidelity, hard-boiled NY cop investigating wealthy suspect), first time feature director Nicholas Jarecki manages to successfully walk the tightrope of telling a somewhat tired story in a fresh way. He does this by layering the story to provide multiple prisms through which to view the lead character and though solid writing and character development. What we have here is a protagonist who is guilty of serious wrong-doing in nearly every aspect of his life but who still somehow manages to compellingly elicit something approaching sympathy from the audience.
Miller’s recurring fatal flaw is evidenced in his interactions with his wife, his mistress, his daughter and a former employee’s son, Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), whom he calls for help after his fatal accident. Jimmy is a young black family man trying to overcome past troubles and make something of himself but when his phone rings late at night he doesn’t hesitate to provide assistance to a man to whom he feels indebted. Miller knows all of this but has no reservations about dragging Jimmy into his troubles and as the heat gets turned up during the ensuing investigation he expects Jimmy to faithfully tow the line. In his dealings with just about everyone, old rich white patriarch Miller believes himself to be above the law, able to operate outside normal normal moral boundaries, the center of the universe. But in Miller’s defense, he has ably played the role of a “provider” for many in his circle. The question becomes what does it take to make a man a good husband, a good father, a good employer? Is providing financial abundance enough?
Several years post-financial-meltdown, it’s hard to believe that the deceitful billionaire character of Robert Miller could elicit interest, much less some level of sympathy, but Richard Gere is mesmerizing enough in his strongest performance in many years to pull it off. And while some may find it frustrating, it helps that Jarecki is careful to never judge Miller either, instead presenting the story free of any overt moralizing. While Gere’s subtle and nuanced performance as a charismatic, charming and fatally flawed “smartest man in the room” carries the film, Sarandon proves nearly his equal in her limited screen time, especially shining in the late-in-the-film showdown with her husband. Sadly, some of the supporting cast’s chops aren’t as strong nor, to be fair, are their characters as well developed.