In this era of Wall Street greed and apathy, we’ve seen a lot of films that have attempted to paint a picture of just how cunning and deplorable these slimy bankers and investors are. We’ve had hits (Margin Call) and misses (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) Arbitrage falls well within the hit category.
The film follows billionaire investor Robert Miller (Richard Gere), whose investment firm is about to be merged with a giant bank. He’s one of the most respected traders on Wall Street and has a beautiful family, but he’s got a massive secret. He’s hiding a $400 million+ hole in his investment portfolio that could kill the merger and subject him and his most trusted employees to serious jail time.
Things get worse when he accidentally kills his mistress in a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel. He contacts the young son of a trusted former and deceased employee to come and pick him up from the scene of the accident to avoid any public scrutiny that could damage his family and his company. When a wise detective (Tim Roth) starts putting the pieces together, Robert finds himself at risk of losing everything that’s important to him.
There were a few things in particular I really loved about this film, but I’ll start with the cast. The lead in this film is Richard Gere as Robert Miller, and he plays the character with the perfect balance of paranoia and arrogance. With his snowy white hair and crisp suits, he embodies the stereotype of Wall Street lion effortlessly. At 63 years old, Gere seems to be hitting a stride with some exceptionally standout performances over the last 5 years.
Tim Roth plays NYPD Detective Bryer, and as usual hits his marks perfectly. Roth is very chameleon-like and he adopts a pretty good Brooklyn accent for the role. He acts as the films “everyman” amongst the Manhattan elite who seem to get away with just about everything.
The supporting cast is terrific with Susan Sarandon as Miller’s unassuming wife Ellen, and indie breakout star Brit Marling (Another Earth) as Miller’s daughter Brooke who is also the CIO of the firm. Both actresses have plenty to work with and play as stark contrasts to the ruthlessness of Gere’s Robert. Newcomer Nate Parker has an especially important role as Jimmy, who drives Miller away from the accident that killed his mistress. As the film unfolds, your heart breaks for Jimmy, as he seems like an innocent pawn in a game among vengeful and desperate men.
Another plus to this film is it’s incredible pacing. It’s a credit to Jarecki as a filmmaker that despite the sometimes difficult subject matter (in terms of understanding), it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen. The film rolls right into the unbecoming of Miller’s empire with haste, and mostly the effect is not overwhelming as we stay with Miller throughout (I can think of maybe a handful of quick scenes in which Gere does not appear). Jarecki has also done a solid job of portraying the distance in lifestyle between the wealthy elite that Miller represents, and the rest of us who live in more humble circumstances. The Miller family lives in a vast Manhattan home with excesses strewn about their various rooms, and rarely do we see any of them travel in anything other than a private jet or private car complete with a television feed. It’s alarming that men who do so little good live in such grandiosity, but if Jarecki was trying to make a political statement about class separation, I certainly didn’t pick up on it.
Jarecki doesn’t try to make Miller a likable guy. In fact, throughout the film I found myself swiftly falling between empathy for Miller and disgust. There is no doubt about it, Miller is an awful human being and his actions in this film reinforce his general apathy towards everyone but himself. When Jimmy is threatened with an indictment charge and still doesn’t give Miller up to the police, Miller offers him a $2 million trust as an olive branch. It is a brief glimpse into the inner workings of the “big shot CEO”. Money is the energy that powers the world to these men, and they throw around astronomical amounts of it like it doesn’t mean anything. Whenever there are brief glimmers of compassion for Miller, we’re pulled right out of it by some act of greed and corruption. In fact, there is really only one hero in this film, and I bet that when you watch it, you’ll know who I am talking about.
So all in all, Arbitrage is a tremendous film. As a recommendation, I would implore you to watch the documentary Inside Job right before viewing this film for further emphasis of the point. Money is the root of all evil, and in this film you’ll understand why.