A very impressive debut feature from Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage makes the world of high financial malfeasance seemingly more accessible by examining its workings at the personal and intimate level of one man’s life. Richard Gere, in a career highlight turn, anchors the film as troubled hedge fund magnate Robert Miller [sic. “Can someone please tell Hollywood there hasn’t been a WASP on Wall St for 30 years?” – @AnnCoulter, December 2, 2013]. Miller is an expert at projecting confidence and has built a fortune on the basis of the trust people have invested in him; but, just as financial activity is largely a matter of trade in illusions, so Miller’s personal as well as his professional life is not so secure as it might appear from outside. When he loses control of his car and pulls a Chappaquiddick with unlucky French mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta) on a deserted road, the ensuing police investigation, led by Detective Bryer (Tim Roth), threatens a run on his relationships with his partners, investors, his wife (Susan Sarandon), and daughter (Brit Marling).
Finding himself in a major pickle, Miller enlists the help of Jimmy (Nate Parker), the black son of a former chauffeur, and sets in motion a cycle of lies that endanger not only his own security, but the well-being of every other person whose life intersects with Miller’s. His family situation could disintegrate if the truth of his doings and dealings came out; also at stake are the stockholders who depend on Miller for the good stewardship of their wealth. When Bryer targets Jimmy as a means to nailing his principal quarry, Miller places Jimmy in the unenviable position of being expected to sacrifice himself, potentially going to prison, for an irresponsible billionaire who may only view Jimmy as an expendable variation on the sacrificial Negro.
Though Miller continues to behave reprehensibly throughout the remainder of Arbitrage, the remarkable thing is that he never ceases to be a compelling and pitiable character. In action, he is a fascinating man to observe, and his professional dealings display a talent and admirable charisma that make the audience want him to succeed in bringing some order back into his life. Gere, so handsome and seemingly serene, is the perfect actor to play Robert Miller and creates a wonderful interpretation. Susan Sarandon is typically great, particularly in one powerful scene in the denouement. That her character is absent for most of the film is in keeping with Miller’s experience (in consideration of how he neglects her), but increased screen time for Sarandon would be nice. Marling and Casta, too, are fine and affecting in their supporting roles. Jimmy, as written, is never an entirely convincing character, which is not the fault of Parker; but he does serve interesting ends for the story. Tim Roth, naturally, is diverting in his adversarial role.
Tense and filled with devilishly uncomfortable moments, Arbitrage is very recommendable, affording a rare and human glimpse into a closed society. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Arbitrage is:
6. Anti-drug. Julie turns to cocaine for distraction after romantic disappointment.
5. Anti-slut. Julie, though depicted sympathetically, must be punished for the harlot’s part she plays in potentially wrecking Miller’s home, and so dies in decidedly unglamorous fashion in a wreck of her own.
4. Diversity-skeptical. That Miller’s chosen accomplice, Jimmy, is a young black man from Harlem is a circumstance that complicates and darkens their relationship, partly because Jimmy’s father was one of Miller’s servants. Jimmy is sensitive on the subject of his ambiguous, mostly business, but possibly also partly sentimental position relative to his father’s employer. His blackness makes him an easy target for prosecution.
3. Class-conscious. Detective Bryer resents the special treatment “rich assholes” like Miller receive in the legal system and demonstrates an unwise zeal in his effort to incriminate him in Julie’s death.
2. State-skeptical. Police falsify evidence. Statist economic intervention and nationalization of industry in Russia distorts market processes and, while seeming at first to be a boon for Miller, is ultimately the cause of his financial woes.
1. Capital-skeptical. Though not an anti-capitalist film, Arbitrage knows its subject too well not to concede the vile, illusory nature of much of high finance. Those who suffer the most from such malfeasance are seldom the authors of the crimes.