Definition of Arbitrage:
- The nearly simultaneous purchase and sale of securities or foreign exchange in different markets in order to profit from price discrepancies.
- The purchase of the stock of a takeover target especially with a view to selling it profitably to the raider.
“Arbitrage” looks like the average thriller better suited to the usual made for TV movie on network television or the Lifetime Channel. However, it turns out to be a brilliant thriller which takes a seemingly simple story and spins it into a complex one filled with characters that seem easy to figure out but prove to be anything but. Just when you think this will be a film about what’s right and wrong, it becomes one in which everyone finds their moral values permanently compromised no matter how good their intentions are.
Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, a hedge-fund magnate whose every inch of his being oozes success like it’s supposed to. Robert looks to have all the money he ever needs, a loving family, a loyal wife, grandkids and the whole nine yards. We soon find, however, that he is deeply immersed in fraudulent practices which could tear his whole empire down if exposed. Robert’s only salvation is to sell off his trading empire to a major bank before his wall street crimes are revealed so he may pay off all his debts for good.
But things get seriously complicated for Robert when he is driving to upstate New York with his mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta) and their car flips over on the road. The crash ends up killing Julie and leaves Robert in a serious predicament as he cannot report what happened to the police. If he does, it will seriously delay the sale of his company which could put him and his family on the brink of financial disaster. The walls continue to close in when NYPD Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) is assigned to the case and finds circumstantial evidence implicating Robert in Julie’s death. The question is, how much longer he can keep up this moral duplicity before it undoes him permanently?
“Arbitrage” marks the directorial debut of writer Nicholas Jarecki whose work deals with larger than life characters and morally ambiguous themes of industry, power, and corruption. What I loved about his direction here was how naturalistic everything seemed, be it the acting or the setting. No one in the cast overdoes their performance which makes for a more invigorating cinematic experience than we typically get.
Jarecki also gives us some brilliantly conceived characters who appear to represent right and wrong very clearly, but as the story goes on, we find they are not immune to moral compromises. Even the police detective who represents working class Americans sick of being screwed over by the rich proves he is not above bending the rules to get a conviction. All this time, Julie becomes less of a human being and more of a bargaining chip for everybody involved.
I was listening to an interview with Gere and NPR’s Audie Cornish who remarked how she’s always rooting for the actor no matter what character he plays. Whether he’s playing a slick defense attorney who lives for self-promotion in “Primal Fear” or as a seriously corrupt cop in “Internal Affairs,” Gere comes across as strangely likable even when his characters are jerks to say the least. His role as Robert Miller is further proof of how brilliantly he portrays the kind of people we love to hate in these endlessly difficult economic times.
Robert is at his heart a slick manipulator and a liar; he deceives his children, cheats on his wife, is knowingly committing fraud, and is not about to accept any responsibility for his mistress’ death. Throughout “Arbitrage’s” running time, Gere is riveting as he tries to stay one step ahead of the law, and we find ourselves rooting for him to do so. We should despise this man and his morally duplicitous ways, but you have to admit Robert is a very smart guy who has managed to stay afloat despite some bad decisions.
Although his New York accent sounds a little weird, Tim Roth is also excellent as NYPD detective who becomes bent on taking Robert down. His character of Michael Bryer is on the side of law and justice, but he proves to be as ruthless as Robert while he pursues witnesses relentlessly, and he has no problem threatening their livelihoods in order to get a conviction.
Nate Parker plays Jimmy Grant; a family friend of Robert’s who helps him out of and then finds himself in the middle of his problems. Jimmy is a familiar character in that he is caught between doing the right thing and keeping his mouth shut and we see so many of them in movies. But Parker does great work in conveying Jimmy’s inner turmoil to where this character seems like anything but a cliché, and he makes you feel what it’s like to walk in his shoes.
Brit Marling is wonderful as Robert’s daughter and heir-apparent Brooke, and seeing her transition from loyal daughter to one whose trust is forever shattered is heartbreaking. Her scene with Gere will remind those of us who have been put into impossible situations we cannot easily extricate ourselves from, and the look on her face is one which never goes away.
But it’s Susan Sarandon who almost steals the show as Robert’s wife Ellen, and she reminds us what a powerhouse of an actress she can be. Sarandon portrays Ellen as loyal almost to a fault, but she reveals vulnerabilities throughout which indicate she knows more about what’s going on than Robert realizes. Sarandon’s final confrontation with Gere is a knockout as she comes up with an extra strategy which is as brilliant as the one Katie Holmes pulled on Tom Cruise.
In addition, there’s also a wealth of beautiful cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and a music score by Cliff Martinez which fits this material like a glove.
I was stunned at how much I liked “Arbitrage,” and it really is one of the best movies I saw in 2012. It’s the kind of film you can’t quite prepare yourself for how good it will be because it came cloaked in trailers and advertisements which make it look ho-hum. Jarecki, however, gives us a film which is anything but average, and I thank him for that.