Arbitrage is one of those titles that requires some explanation. My online dictionary of choice describes it as the process of negotiation by which those in the financial sector can profit from any imbalance between markets, but stay with me: it fits Nicholas Jarecki’s snappy thriller, another offering from the emergent bankers-in-crisis subgenre that provided last year’s eye-catching Margin Call, more or less perfectly. Negotiation is at the heart of it: again, we’re watching someone who’s had it too easy for too long trying to worm their way out of a very deep and dark hole.
Richard Gere’s Robert Miller is a high-functioning alpha who has it all, except maybe the time to deal with it properly. A Wall Street mover-and-shaker, he slides along the surface of his world on a thin skein of meaningless, quickly reneged promises, pledging to spend more time with his wife (Susan Sarandon) and their family while sneaking away to tryst with his mistress (Laetitia Casta), a woman so irresistibly French she owns a gallery and gasps “oh, mon Dieu” when in the throes of passion.
Even Miller, though, is subject to nagging niggles: a contract that hasn’t been signed in a rare instance of someone holding out on him, the lurking threat of a financial audit, a vague sense he’s overdoing it for a man of his advancing years. One night, he takes his eye off the road, totalling his car – along with mademoiselle, dozing without seatbelt in the passenger seat – and leaving him bleeding on the inside and psychologically shaken everywhere else. Damage limitation becomes the order of the day.
The question Arbitrage poses is this: when did Richard Gere become so fascinating to watch? Sure, it helps that Jarecki has written a character with both money and power enough to try and manoeuvre himself out of this situation, whether trying to pass off a major fraud as “a bad bet” or sell out his accomplice in the subsequent cover-up. Yet it’s Gere who makes all this fly, spiking the glib slickness of his previous romantic heroes with the notes of moral ambiguity he traded on in his career-changing performance as Clifford Irving in 2006’s The Hoax, and selling us on a series of lies.
Jarecki’s film, set within a world not exactly overflowing with sympathetic characters, exerts a similar chilly grip to TV’s Damages: it’s unusually interested in those supporting and day players through whom the central character hopes to do his bidding, and superbly cast all the way down. Sound use is made of indie darling Brit Marling’s air of blonde privilege as Miller’s daughter, and of Whit Stillman regular Chris Eigeman’s smarts as Miller’s second-in-command. Sarandon continues a fine recent run of roles as a Brooklyn girl whom affluence has hardened into a formidably steely society wife; and Tim Roth is nicely prickly as the slouching detective whose lack of politesse seems designed to get right under his quarry’s skin.
One surprise is how this conventional line of inquiry – will the banker conceal his crimes from the eyes of the law? – is allowed to recede; instead, Arbitrage finds another, novel way of getting at Miller, and out of the snakepit of deals, hustles and negotiations it plunges us into. (Recent history would suggest bankers might just be beyond the law altogether.) Jarecki knows there’s an obvious narrative pleasure that comes with watching a swaggerer heading for a fall; what his film also possesses is the intelligence and rigour to shape this descent into a terrifically watchable and resonant parable of greed, corruption, and the way the world now appears to work.
(MovieMail, March 2013)
Arbitrage screens on C4 tonight at 1.30am.