Arbitrage makes it feel like Nicholas Jarecki has been directing films for years.
There seems to be a growing trend among filmmakers to address or reflect, through their work, issues that are currently affecting our society. In 2011, audiences were given the overpraised and underwhelming Margin Call, which sought to highlight the evils of Wall Street bankers. This year, one of the biggest indie breakouts is Beasts of the Southern Wild, a small and imaginative film that allegorizes the plight of those affected by Hurricane Katrina. Even HBO has gotten in the game with Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, which takes a look behind a fictional cable news program using real-life stories as its backdrop.
Now, we have Arbitrage, an intelligent and competent thriller that peels back the face of the elite classes and zeroes in on a motivator that, irrespective of your annual salary, drives us all: selfishness. While comparisons will be made between the film’s protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), and Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, the two men are quite different. The media and most critics will also shout that Robert Miller is the perfect example of a hero of Ayn Rand’s fiction, but that is another incorrect assessment.
Robert Miller is the CEO of Miller Capital, a hedge-fund firm on the cusp of a very big (read: lucrative) buyout deal. Miller, who has just turned 60, has amassed a fortune so large that most average citizens couldn’t fathom its totality. His Chief Investment Officer is also his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), who has her father’s business acumen but the compassion of her mother, Ellen (Susan Sarandon). Robert also has a girlfriend, Julie (Laetitia Casta), an art dealer who desperately wants to have Robert to herself.
We find out that Robert’s company is having serious financial issues in the aftermath of a disastrous investment gamble. If the buyout deal doesn’t go through, Robert is likely to go to prison for a long, long time. To make matters worse, Julie is killed in a late night car accident in which he was the driver. Robert flees the scene, getting help from Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), a young man who seemingly shouldn’t have anything in common with Robert. As Robert’s professional life begins to crumble, Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) seeks to make his personal life miserable, as well, believing Robert to be responsible for the deadly accident.
The narrative feature film debut of Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage is extremely well choreographed, thanks to the script written by Jarecki himself. Even though we should loathe him, we pull for Robert to do the right thing and confess to everything. We know in the back of our minds, though, this isn’t going to happen, which makes the film so much more enjoyable. Jarecki’s previous effort was a documentary called The Outsider, but Arbitrage makes it feel like he has been directing films for years. While he makes a few mistakes in terms of editing and scene composition, they can easily be corrected in future endeavors.
The reason Arbitrage succeeds is because Robert’s character isn’t fueled by greed (like Gordon Gekko and his real-life Wall Street counterparts), but by selfishness. Everyone is predisposed to self-interest and self-preservation; Robert just takes it to extreme lengths. Gere is quite good as Robert, exuding infinite confidence while spinning out of control internally. The best part of the film, though, is watching Roth chew his scenes as Detective Bryer, doing his best Robert DeNiro in scene after scene. Unfortunately, Marling doesn’t show much growth from her double-breakout performances in Another Earth and The Sound of My Voice. Perhaps being surrounded by Gere and Sarandon proved too daunting for the still-inexperienced actress.
Arbitrage is definitely one of the better films to come out in 2012, despite its technical flaws. The film works as both a reflection of the society that surrounds us and as a piece of escapist entertainment, and that is no easy feat. | Matthew Newlin