Before I saw Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, one person told me it was similar to last year’s Margin Call — and that’s not a bad comparison. My guess is that if you liked Margin Call, you’ll probably like this. But in many ways, this is a different kettle of ichthyological specimens in that it’s part high-finance drama and part thriller — and the two things line up surprisingly well. Maybe that’s because there’s really not all that much difference between high-finance shenanigans and plain old crime. (Actually, it reminded me somewhat of this year’s Headhunters — minus the bloody mayhem — in that we watch the main character sink further and further into a mess of his own making from which it seems impossible to escape from.) There is one inherent downside to all this — all of the characters are pretty darn unlikable. But when they’re played by such a capable cast in such a tightly constructed story, you may not mind so much.
Richard Gere (in his best form since 2006’s The Hoax) stars as Robert Miller, an over-extended venture capital magnate whose personal life might also be said to be over-extended. He has a wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon in equally fine form), who doesn’t ask too many awkward questions. He has a palatial home — with the most amazing chandelier ever (one that reminds you that the 1 percent don’t do their own dusting) — and a dutiful daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling — a bit out of her depth), in business with him. Materially, Miller would seem to have it made. The problem is that he borrowed a paltry $416 million to cover a “leak” until he can sell off the business and set things right. Unfortunately, the lender would like the money back, and the buyer with whom he’s dealing keeps stalling.
But there’s even more trouble just around the corner in the form of his demanding art-gallery-owning mistress Julie Cote (Laetitia Casta, Gainsbourg). Her desire for more of his time results in a getaway trip where he wrecks the car and she dies. Fearful of exposure, he seeks the help of Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker, Red Tails), the son of a former employee, to pick him up and sneak him home. Unfortunately for Miller, the police realize that Julie wasn’t driving. Even more unfortunately, the detective on the case, Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), quickly figures out who the driver almost certainly was and is determined to prove it. Therein lie the escalating complexities of the story — and it’s to Jarecki’s credit that he has divided them up so that we’re never away from any of the situations for too long. It’s to Gere’s credit that he can move from situation to situation with reasonable aplomb — all while letting us (and no one else) see that he’s on the verge of losing it at every turn.
The film would not work if it tried to make Gere into a sympathetic character, and thankfully it doesn’t. (What marginal sympathy — too strong a word really — it creates is generated by the fact that his detective nemesis isn’t all that much better.) Instead, the film is content to make Gere a compelling, fascinating monster who — from a business standpoint — is wading in a sea of monsters as corrupt as himself. You wouldn’t want to be friends with this man (or let him handle your money), but he’s terrifically slimy and fun to watch from the safety of a theater seat. All in all, this is an intelligent and intelligently made film that provides solid adult entertainment of a kind we don’t see all that often. Rated R for language, brief violent images and drug use.