Arbitrage, Nicholas Jarecki’s remarkably assured directorial debut, dazzles by virtue of what it accomplishes within very strict conventions, its familiar story elements arranged and executed so artfully as to infuse them with new energy and meaning. Jarecki’s classical, unobtrusive visual style complements his sharp writing and the cast’s pitch-perfect performances.
A timely Wall Street thriller crossed with dark family drama, Arbitrage concerns the desperate scrambling of Robert Miller (Richard Gere) to unload his hedge fund empire and preserve his personal world before both crumble in his hands. The two are inextricably linked: his daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) is his CIO, and he has kept her in the dark about some extremely corrupt bookkeeping that is coming back to haunt him. Meanwhile, his artist mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta) is making waves and his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) is getting suspicious. Jarecki is fascinated by the intricacies of both family life and shady financial dealings. He keeps hurling challenges at Miller from all sides, using the convergence of personal and professional crises to ratchet up the tension. When things spin horribly out of control, Miller turns for help to his cunning lawyer (Stuart Margolin) and the son of an old acquaintance (Nate Parker) while being pursued by a wry, rumpled detective (Tim Roth), and finds a potential savior (or dupe) in the form of slippery banker played with panache by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.
In case you haven’t already noticed, Jarecki has assembled an absurdly talented cast, which packs the film from top to bottom with brilliant performances. There isn’t room to discuss them all, so let’s focus on the central one. I confess to disliking Richard Gere in his youth (with the notable exception of Days of Heaven). He always seemed a smug and self-involved leading man, but age has brought him gravitas and more complex roles. Like Michael Douglas, he’s frequently off-putting as a straightforward hero but has a paradoxical gift for making despicable characters compelling, even likable. Miller represents one of his meatiest roles ever, and possibly the finest performance of his career. With his mane of silver hair, he moves through the film like a lion, regarding everyone as potential prey and relying on the brutal instincts he conceals behind a carefully composed façade — which he lets down just once for a moment of frightening, feral intensity.
Jarecki has created a tightly structured two-hour story that conveys an epic sweep by suggesting a whole world beyond its spatial and temporal limits. His characters have histories and futures and live in a New York — in an America — that teems with life all around them. His nuanced, objective tone deepens the bite of his film’s commentary on the recent financial crisis and American capitalism in general. Money can extricate one from the stickiest of jams, especially if it’s supplemented by ruthlessness and charm (and having white skin doesn’t hurt, either). Arbitrage doesn’t soft-pedal what sort of people win the financial game, but it also suggests the toll corruption exacts on their souls.