Movie Review: Arbitrage
by Matthew Huntley
Before seeing Arbitrage, I looked up the definition of the title, which refers to the practice of buying something in one place and selling it in another because it’s worth more. After seeing the film, this didn’t make much sense. Then I came upon a second, lesser known definition, which is “an authoritative decision or exercise of judgment.” This latter meaning is what writer-director Nicholas Jarecki must have had in mind when he made this sharp, intelligent thriller, which takes place in a world where authoritative decisions are made every day, even though they’re not always the right ones.
In Arbitrage, the man making most of the decisions is Robert Miller (Richard Gere), who owns a highly successful trading firm in New York City - or at least it seems successful. It would also seem Robert has an all-around perfect life - he’s just made the cover of Forbes magazine at the age of 60, though he hardly looks that old; he’s happily married to Ellen (Susan Sarandon), a charitable woman by day and even more patient wife by night; he’s business partners with his smart, moralistic daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling); and he’s on the verge of selling his company, which will more or less allow him to retire a billionaire.
Robert has dedicated his life to his company, which is why Brooke is so surprised he wants to sell it. When he tells her such a move would give him more time to spend with her and his grandkids, she laughs and says, “I’m just thinking, what would we do together?”
We come to learn Robert’s business is not doing so well after all. He recently gambled on a foreign copper company and lost badly, a blunder that would cost his investors millions and God knows how many people their jobs. But rather than own up to his mistake, he fraudulently covers it up by borrowing money from a friend to temporarily plug the hole. He’s hoping the sale of his company will clean up the mess for good, but until it goes through and a pending audit from the IRS passes, he must hide his desperation.
That’s not the only thing Robert is hiding. He also has a French mistress named Julie (Laetitia Casta), an up-and-coming artist who wants Robert all to herself but knows deep down he’ll never leave his wife. For Robert, it boils down to preserving a respectable image for his business and those under him.
To describe Robert and this situation makes Arbitrage sound like another routine drama that takes place in the world of corporate business, the likes of which we’ve seen before. But then a totally unexpected (yet perfectly plausible) event occurs, which sets the film on a drastically different path, one that’s tense, piercing and richly performed. Because the effect of the movie depends on the audience not knowing about it, I won’t reveal the event here, and you’d be wise not to look it up, for it allows the film to take on a greater purpose and intensity, something we come to appreciate more with each passing scene.
Arbitrage is mostly a genre picture, but a hard-hitting one, and the best thing it does is assume all of its characters are smart and informed; they act and speak like real people would in their situations and we therefore feel like we’re a part of their world. Jarecki infuses his screenplay with clear, sophisticated dialogue and spares us the lazy, convenient writing that infests so many other thrillers just so the plot can move forward. The results are us listening to and considering what all the characters have to say, even the supposed bad guys. Consider one of the movie’s best scenes, in which Robert explains some of his recent actions to Brooke. Gere and Marling’s exchanges ring of harsh truth and illustrate how their characters’ dilemmas can’t simply be categorized in black and white, at least from their points of view. They also demonstrate the film’s caliber of acting, which is straight, serious and unaffected. The actors speak from within.
A key performance in the film comes from Nate Parker as Jimmy Grant, a black kid whom Robert views as his personal lackey because he supported Jimmy’s father. We assume Jimmy will get tossed aside once he’s played his part in the plot, but he actually takes on a much greater and more interesting role. Parker, focused and sympathetic, plays Jimmy with sincerity and the story leaves the outcome of his character open to different possibilities. It’s one of the ways Arbitrage consistently surprises us and goes places we don’t anticipate.
Tim Roth is also strong and charismatic as an NYC detective investigating Robert, bringing with him his usual dynamism and presence. Roth is the type of actor you know will be good by default, even if he supersedes the material. Fortunately in this case, his talent and the script are well-matched.
As for Gere, he plays the part of Robert so naturally and forcibly it could be the role that finally earns him an Oscar nomination, and possibly the statue itself. He’s been worthy before, but with Arbitrage, he has the benefit of a penetrating, memorable story. And even though the film’s overall messages and indictments about the morals, ethics and injustices within corporate America are rather obvious, they still need to be said, and Jarecki and his cast say them intelligently. Here is a film that works equally well as a thriller, a social commentary and a fable. That’s a fine combination.