A film review by Craig J. Koban December 20, 2012

ARBITRAGE jjj
½ 

2012, R, 107 mins.

Robert: Richard Gere / Ellen: Susan Sarandon / Det. Bryer: Tim Roth / Brooke: Brit Marling / Julie: Laetitia Casta

Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki

ARBITRAGE is a new Wall Street financial thriller with a character that is an unmitigated son of a bitch that I somehow developed a misplaced rooting interest in.  The person in question is a 60-year-old billionaire hedge fund manager that, through the course of the film, commits moral and ethical criminal acts that hardly invite our sympathy: he’s an adulterer; a downright liar to all those around him; perpetrates fraud on a massive, multi-billionaire dollar scale; and, worst of all, is complicit in the indirect killing of his mistress.  Yet, we somehow…inexplicably and miraculously…become wholly engaged in this man’s  attempts to get away with it all.  Here’s a guy that is willing to betray everyone close to him to get off scot-free…and we nonetheless become enraptured with his labyrinthine steps to achieve just that. 

That’s the real underlining power of ARBITRAGE, a universally strong debut film for director Nicholas Jarecki, who manages to confidently maneuver through this story’s complex themes and even more complicated main character.  He manages to not only concoct a relatable parable that echoes the economic woes and anxieties that we all deal with (and the notion that the wealthy seem to get away with figurative murder in their efforts to get richer), but he also creates a fascinating and tense character-driver thriller that does not wallow in giving us black and white protagonists and antagonists.  The rich man at the heart of all of this film’s massive indiscretions comes off neither as a hero or a villain, but sort of a conflicted combination of the two.  Like many men that have committed wrongdoing, he often pleads that it does it for the greater good. 

The billionaire in question is Robert Miller (a spot-on cast Richard Gere) that seemingly has it all: aged good looks, a loving wife, a nurturing and supportive family, and a job that makes him exceedingly wealthy.  He’s also liked and respected by his work colleagues.  Deep down, though, Robert is a crook.  A damn, dirty crook.  He has made a huge investment in a would-be lucrative Russian copper mine that has gone bust, which he made by secretly injecting capital in it that was not his own.  Now faced with impending economic ruin, Robert decides to ruthlessly doctor his company’s books to cover the millions he took from others for the investment and avoid being arrested for massive financial fraud.  Oh, he also wants to sell his company in the process of all of this without alerting his malfeasance to his own daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), who is the CEO and is performing an audit on the books that Robert has already tampered with. 

 

 

Robert is some piece of work.  When he’s not engaging in monetary deception, he’s also cheating on his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon) with a cocaine-addicted and rather clingy artist (Laetitia Casta) who's – day-by-day – growing increasingly hostile towards Robert that he is not spending more time with her.  One night while driving with his mistress Robert manages to doze off behind the wheel, which causes the vehicle flip off the road in a thunderous crash.  Robert is nearly severely injured, but survives; alas, his girlfriend is instantly killed.  He now finds himself attempting the impossible: ensure that his wife doesn’t find out; cover up his involvement in the accident and lead the chief police investigator (Tim Roth) off his tail as a suspect; and, most crucially, guarantee that investors in his company that may wish to buy it – as well as his auditing daughter - never discover any of his deplorable acts. 

The endlessly will-he-or-won’t-he-be-caught dynamism of ARBITRAGE is ultimately what makes it such a compulsive watch, not to mention that witnessing Robert spiral downwards into one inconvenient setback after another to clear his name is equally gripping.  The jigsaw-puzzle-like nature of his multiple deceptions-upon-deceptions begins to wear down on Robert, which places him in a decidedly more vulnerable state as the story progresses.  If matters were not bad enough for him, he even manages to get a former convict named Jimmy (a fine Nate Parker) – a son of Robert’s family chauffeur with a questionable past trying to move on – in on his quest to hide the truth from everyone.  Things get really dicey when Roth’s grizzled police detective starts to put pressure on poor Jimmy to rat out Robert - whom the cop thinks is responsible for the  mistress' murder, without having concrete proof to back it up - to save himself from long-term incarceration. 

Is there a better actor working today that has never won an Oscar – let alone has never been nominated for one – than Richard Gere?  I don’t think so.  I find that the 62-year-old actor has become more natural, genuine, and interesting to watch as a performer as he has become older (see his underrated performance in THE HOAX), and it takes a really seasoned actor to become fully immersed in the deeply flawed, multifaceted, and demanding role of Robert.  Gere has always been known to easily exude nonchalant charm and an agreeably inviting appeal, which he certainly evokes in Robert.  Yet, he also has to relay a Wall Street wolf that will eat his way to the top without any regard to his victims, family or foe alike.  Gere has played mostly likeable personas in the movies, but what’s truly intoxicating about his work here is that he still manages to make Robert perversely relatable despite the fact that he’s a stone cold asshole.  In an age when Wall Street fraudsters are the new go-to film villains, it’s terrific to see how an actor of Gere’s skills can make more out of a potentially one-dimensional cretin; he’s not been this good in years.

The other actors around Gere compliment him nicely.  Roth has played cops before, which is no stretch for him, but he gives all of his investigator roles a gnarly authenticity that few actors are able to muster.  The naturally beautiful and talented Brit Marling (who previously starred in and co-wrote last year’s brilliant sci-fi drama ANOTHER EARTH) is an assured enough actress to hold her own even in heated confrontational scenes with the more experienced Gere.  Sarandon, in a small, but crucial role as Robert’s wife, has to outwardly convey a supportive spouse that inwardly suspects something dark and twisted about her husband.  A climatic scene between Ellen and Robert – as Robert tries to outfox all of her accusations – is about the finest bit of give-and-take acting that you’ll see all year. 

ARBITRAGE, if anything, can’t be labeled as wholly fresh and original.  The notion of upper class/white collar criminals ruining the lives of those beneath them while making more money has been done to death in films as far-ranging as WALL STREET and last year’s terrific MARGIN CALL.  There are also times when all the film’s dialogue exchanges about hedge funds, dividends, and most other convoluted financial brokerage terms will leave many viewers – including myself – scratching their heads to keep up.  Those are but small gripes, because ARBITRAGE is well oiled, exemplarily paced, and gripping thriller with a Hitchocockian slant that shows a guilty man trying to hide his guilt while the wheels of justice forms a tighter choke hold on him.  That, and Gere has a career-best field day here of making his unforgivable economic hustler kind of forgivably identifiable, which is no easy feat for just any actor.   

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