Arbitrage (United States, 2012)September 15, 2012
With a title like Arbitrage, it's reasonable to expect a story that navigates the byzantine labyrinth of the world's financial systems - perhaps a better companion piece to Wall Street than Money Never Sleeps. However, although there is a little of that, Arbitrage is actually a fairly straightforward thriller in the John Grisham vein. It doesn't demand that the viewer know the difference between a hedge fund and a hedgehog. Arbitrage also reminds us that thrillers do not have to be action-packed to generate tension.
In the wake of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, hedge fund managers have become easy targets for demonization. Arbitrage uses this public perception to its advantage and counterbalances it by having Richard Gere, who normally plays sympathetic characters, as the rapacious lead, Robert Miller. Miller embodies all that is good and bad about a man in his position. On the one hand, he's a loving father, tireless worker, and seems genuinely concerned about protecting the life's savings of his investors. On the other hand, he's a philanderer, liar, and has committed fraud on a massive scale. Paging Bernie Madoff. But the chickens are about to come home to roost.
Arbitrage's strength is Miller's ambiguity. He's a classic anti-hero but, as events develop, we find ourselves hoping he'll discern a way through the minefield in which he finds himself. When the movie begins, he's in a precarious situation. He's trying to sell his multi-multi million dollar company so, as a result of the sale, he can pay back a huge loss he's hiding from auditors. If the banking authorities find out about it, he'll be facing a stiff jail sentence. The buyer appears to be balking and the man lending Miller about $400 million to hide the debt is getting impatient to be paid back.
Meanwhile, in his personal life, Miller is juggling a dutiful wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), and a prickly mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta). It's exhausting, as is evident when Miller falls asleep at the wheel with Julie in the passenger seat. The ensuing crash leaves Miller injured and Julie dead. Fearful that negative publicity will sink the sale of his company, Miller elects to flee the scene of the accident rather than stick around and report it. The investigating detective, Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), finds circumstantial evidence connecting Miller to the incident and sets about going after the billionaire with the tenacity of a bulldog.
The screenplay, written by first-time director Nicholas Jarecki, keeps us guessing, which is one of the best compliments one can pay to a movie of this sort. It doesn't telegraph the ending in the early minutes. We aren't subjected to a series of incomprehensible twists; the movie unspools in a convincingly believable fashion that defies predictability. Only on one occasion is "thriller theatricality" employed (involving a key piece of evidence obtained by the police). A staple motion picture plot features an innocent man desperately trying to prove his innocence (think North by Northwest or The Fugitive, for example); Arbitrage plays with this concept by applying the same general rhythms to a scenario in which a guilty man desperately tries to fake his innocence. The ending strikes the right tone, resolving the primary storyline but maintaining an overall sense of ambiguity.
Arbitrage's glue is Richard Gere's performance. Over the years, Gere has developed into a fine actor, putting behind him the woodenness evident in high-profile roles like An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman. No longer a sex symbol, Gere has sought out movies that challenge him to hone his craft, and Arbitrage is an example of this. He discovers the balance necessary to make Miller credible and interesting, sympathetic and despicable. That we're conflicted about whether we want the character to beat the charges or fall to them is ample evidence that Gere succeeds.
It's refreshing to uncover a thriller that relies on traditional story elements to build suspense. Here, the energy comes not from car chases and shoot-outs but from dialogue, body language, and character interaction. The approach is nuanced instead of in-your-face. For his feature debut, Jarecki has delivered a strong, compelling motion picture and, because it is available simultaneously in theaters and on demand, it's easily accessible to almost everyone, not just those who live within driving distance of an art house.
Arbitrage (United States, 2012)
Cast: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta, Nate Parker
Screenplay: Nicholas Jarecki
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux
Music: Cliff Martinez
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions