The most fascinating aspect about Nicholas Jarecki’s first feature is that the studios let him get away with that title. Let’s change tracks and consider Tolkien, for instance, who wrote densely plotted books filled with strange creatures spewing stranger tongues. When these books were transformed into movies, however, their titles didn’t make them sound all that intimidating — even to someone who did not know who the lord of the rings was. (A tennikoit champion? A nobleman moonlighting as a telephone operator?)
But what are people outside financial circles to make of Arbitrage? I had to seek assistance from Wikipedia, where I learnt it’s “the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalise upon the imbalance, the profit being the difference between the market prices.” To the untutored ear, that sounds positively Elvish. It doesn’t help that the opening scene revolves around a CNBC interview, where Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a super-successful hedge fund manager, holds forth on his subject.
But soon enough, Jarecki moves away from finance and shows us Miller’s family, which has gathered around him to celebrate his sixtieth birthday. In front of his family, he modestly proffers the Mark Twain quip: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” But when alone with his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), he peers into a mirror and complains that he looks old. She replies that he looks wise and regal. Both her observations, as the story unfolds, are rendered moot. For one, this emperor has no clothes. His millions (or perhaps billions) aren’t enough to pull him out of the hole he’s dug his company into, investing in copper mines in Russia. Two, his wisdom comes under question when it is revealed that he has a mistress. Hasn’t this man ever seen a Michael Douglas movie?
In an earlier age, the role of Robert Miller would have been essayed by Douglas, whose specialty was the embodiment of flawed — yet not altogether evil — family men. And the thing that made us protective of Douglas in those films, where we rooted for him to triumph, is what makes us side with Gere here. Jarecki does something unusual for a mainstream Hollywood movie. The plot of Arbitrage pivots on a fatal accident, which Miller inadvertently causes and subsequently attempts to escape association with, as Detective Michael Bryer (a nicely subdued Tim Roth) begins an investigation.
The story, typically, would be told from Bryer’s viewpoint, as he is the good guy, the middle-class man trying to nail a successful and corrupt capitalist. (Even Ellen asks her husband, at one point, “How much money do we need?”) But Jarecki’s focus is on the guilty — and the reason this gambit proves successful is that we’ve all been guilty of Miller’s crimes.
We may not understand, precisely, Miller’s financial dealings, but his emotions are familiar to anyone who’s made a stupid mistake and now faces the prospect of his world crashing down and flattening the people he loves the most. Jarecki paints Miller in sympathetic colours. This is no Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (another smarmy Michael Douglas character). Miller has aided the family of a young black kid, Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), and even with his mistress, he helped her get started in the art business by buying her paintings. Gere plays Miller without sentimentalising these quiet strengths. In his finest scenes, he’s torn between the right thing to do and the best thing to do, under the circumstances. That is a choice a lot of us are familiar with.
From the elements of fevered melodrama, Jarecki crafts a compellingly low-key thriller. The knots that a lesser, or more commercial-minded, filmmaker might have saved for a nail-biting climax (will the deal go through? What will happen to Jimmy Grant?) are unravelled long before the end, which focusses, again, on family. Miller ends up punished, but not in the way we see in the righteous cop shows on TV. The judgment that awaits him is more insidious, more nuanced — as befits a film that tells us that even the admirable Jimmy Grant, who is not a snitch, isn’t immune to brushing aside his ethics for money. We may do the same for two million dollars.