By Chantal-Helene Wagner
A question you might ask yourself after watching Arbitrage by Nicholas Jarecki - his debut feature movie - is what is really the meaning of this film? Is it pure entertainment, i.e., a good thriller? Is it a modern moral fable about the sins of Wall Street? Is it a reverse family movie affirming the ultimate triumph of the tightknit unit on which America rests? Is it a Richard-Gere vehicle?
It's hard to tell what the meaning of this movie is at first, but although you suspect it could just be another conventional flick with a mix of elements pured into a new blend, you might also want to honestly ask yourself the question of its contribution to the art of movie-making and story-telling, and perhaps views on the ills of the financial system...
Arbitrage is about the itinerary and destiny of an aging but still dynamic man Robert Miller (Richard Gere) operating in the circles of high finances. A hedge fund manager, his methods have been unsavory, but have remained sly so far not affecting his smooth external image. They are about to be exposed not only to the public, potentially, but also to some of the closest persons in his existence. He is married to Ellen (Susan Sarandon), has an eldest daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) - who behaves like an eldest son, standing as a spiritual heir to his empire - and then he also has a mistress the age of his daughter, Julie Cote (Laetitia Casta) with whom he has a cynical take-and (then)-give pygmalion relationship. Not to give into a stereotype but apparently, yes, giving into it, the other woman is French. That foreignness of hers and the fact that she is apparently from a split household - no father in sight - helps perhaps explain why no hard-nosed police investigation will be launched in her direction.
Those well-oiled cogs of Miller's conformist and comfortable life enable him to reserve his energies for what truly matters to his own meaningful ends in life, which is to make money, unimpeded by scrupules or rivals.
The story looks at how a delicate, fraudulous financial transaction involving huge sums of money and a $400 million hole in Miller's accounting books coincides with a car accident that will have possibly far-reaching consequences. We see Robert Miller reacting to a crisis, which leads to other crises within his family. Family and business are not entirely dissociated as Brooke is his employee - not his "partner" as he likes to remind her at one point to put her in her place. His whole reputation, status, family and future are going be at stakes.
Gere has been much lauded for his performance in the film having even been buzzed about as an Oscar contender. He is good, much better than expected given his relative movie abstinence and personal acting-outs in the media led you to guess. He is Robert Miller, no doubt about that.
One has to point out however that the choice of having the main character suffer from an internal hemorrhage during the whole movie, without any doubt as to whether this could be dealt the way it is, by just holding one's belly and grimacing along the twists and turns of the plot just makes the story appear a bit weak, thoughtless and finally, makes Gere hover on the side of ham acting at times. The diagnosis by the way is given by a supporting character who is mafia-style, returning a favor once bestowed behind the scenes (Nate Parker). He holds no medical degree but apparently has a street sense for those things and a good eye for symptoms.
What Robert Miller the financier suceeds at embodying through Gere's acting is the sheer selfishness of the character. In this respect, he is somewhat reminiscent of the iconically and disgustingly cynical reporter character played by Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole (1951) although he is relatively speaking less of a devil because he is not a murderer, nor a torturer. Yet this is also about how the system can turn some men who are vulnerable to hubris, insane.
Miller halts only because there was a stupid accident - symbolic at some level of his stupid choices - revealing the frailty of his constructions, but also because his wife decides it's time to stop enabling him for the sake of their daughter. From an ideological standpoint, It's a battle between business selfiness and family selfishness, if you will. The absurdity of extreme greed for just one man is joked about by Miller's wife who asks if he really wants to be the richest guy in the cemetery. Only Miller's daughter shows that idealism is still not dead. The fact that it is a young charater who portrays a person in search of truth, good and honesty, can only lead us to think that somehow it's too late for some.
Justice also tries to stop Miller under the guise of detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) who plays it Colombo-style in the way he holds his body crooked yet keeps his mind sharp This policeman is low-key, intuitive, does not know how to sit straight but has a terrific eye for telling details. He also knows how to ask unsettling little questions, just to probe the reactions of his suspect. The police do not present a clear morality because they are absolutely ready to falsify evidence in order to follow through with a sound lead.
Susan Sarandon is very believable as a worldly wife who is comfortable in her own skin and her relationship with her husband, still bantering with him and supporting him morally like the good wife of a successful man should, but only up to a point. She never looks like a victim from the start of the story because, well, it's Sarandon, who must have been born sexy from day 1 and her moments of vulnerability are few and far between. Her hands are tied by her desire to preserve her family and it is only when Miller attacks that core commitment of hers that she turns against him, with blackmail and a business proposition.
Business and family are the two udders of this story, the two main values that sometimes converge, sometimes clash. When the time comes for Miller to choose, with a little help from Mrs. Miller, neither fulfillments will be denied. In fact, Miller becomes a figure of the sacrificial victim, but up to a point too. No characters in this story really lose themselves, except for the foreign other woman who is treated as mere stereotype and catalyst for a brewing domestic crisis. She wanted to succeed through unsavory means too and she failed. In a world where moral values are confused and relativistic, family is the savior for those who are able to take refuge in it. In a weird scene interjected by Jarecki who authored the screenplay, the mistress' mother is made to appear like a consenting fool who believes Miller did only good to her daughter. She seems to embody the naïveté of ordinary people who believe all too readily in success stories rather than the insight of a mother. She serves to illustrate the fool-gold aspect of Miller's capacity for charm and deception. Hypocrisy is possibly another of the secondary themes that plays out in the movie, but it is not characterized enough to come across as a critique. It describes more of a de facto situation.
In the end, Arbitrage plays the role of a movie whose purpose is to affirm values. It creates drama so as to be able to clear the air and re-establish balance. The ending does nothing or very little to cultivate ambiguity. Miller bows. He is not really a winner, nor a loser. It is a more nuanced proposition than in some other mainstream socio-moral tales.
On a more artistic plane, one can retain from arbitrage how a thriller can focus on one main character which is typified by a single-minded drive: himself. The movie decides that the limits of individualism have to be set by the family and by giving back to others. It tries to propose a counteweight in story-telling to the real-life excesses of Wall Street, its damageable amorality. Its hubris was not punished. It was even rewarded. Robert Miller suffers, yet is not severely punished like Bernie Madoff whose plight lurks in the New York background, but at least is not rewarded. His daughter will thrive while one of Madoff's son hanged himself. The system is preserved, only it passes into better hands. Jarecki is obviously hoping that change can intervene, but only individually. Will this scenario have an impact on those who are called out? It is more likely to be comfort food/viewing for the middle-class family. On a more fruitful plane, it could be a lesson in temperance for those who will be ready to listen to it.