Arbitrage (***½)

Arbitrage is a film that might seem like little more than a energetic, well acted film about the financial crisis, but underneath the surface is a hauntingly urgent requiem on the American Dream and the moral fabric of the country. Using a bevy of fantastic performances and a sharp script, the film is a great Rorshach test for audiences on how moralistic their decision making is. Many an audience member will go in completely cold (like I did) and witness a film about Robert Miller, played with great tenacity by Richard Gere, a wildly successful hedge fund manager who is trying to sell his company despite not being able to account for $412 million worth of earnings. It’s a situation most Americans are aware of, but unlike Too Big To Fail or Margin Call, this film aims to make the crisis human, giving us a face of a man who throughout the proceedings tries to get away with many an awful activity. Those dealings include not just the fraudulent sale of his company but blackmail, adultery, and possibly murder. While those transgressions might seem like a turnoff, writer director Nichalos Jarecki wields them in such a way that routinely gives the audience room to choose their own interpretation, making us take ownership of the situations we’re witnessing on screen.  By presenting these characters as humans first, and representations of a financial crisis second, the audience is lulled into a sense of camaraderie with the characters, especially Miller. It’s a testament how well the script is written that no matter how much we see Miller squirm or how close the walls come to tumbling down, we root for him till the end. And what does that say about us? Are we any better than Miller if we’re interested in seeing him escape the law?

It was those kind of moral decision making questions that really makes Arbitrage a knock out of a film. I was blown away by how slick the filmmaking was and how easily I was caught up in Miller’s perfect storm. The great reveal by the end of the film is not whether or not he gets caught, but that you all along were complicit in his dealings. You wanted him to weasel out of being caught, you watched him lie to the people he loved and it didn’t matter. Because you reason that if you were in the same position, you would have done the same thing.

Of course much of that is to be attributed by just how great Richard Gere is in the title role. Using every considerable amount of charm and “Golden Boy”-ness that he has accumulated over the years, Gere breathes energy into a role that many an actor would play as a straight villain. Though Gere does well to show us the cracks of Miller, I was struck at just how put together the character was, knowing that there was nothing he couldn’t do to get out of the most dire situations. I’m glad Gere was unafraid to just present the character as a “good man” because it made the performance that much more rich and enables you to jump right in with the film. Gere could see some awards/critics love at the end of the year for this role, it’s that good.

But Gere doesn’t hog all the spotlight, and two actors in particular movie give him a run for his money. Tim Roth is ferocious as the exasperated cop who wants to be able to just once put away these men who never seem to answer to their crimes. Roth has always been an intense actor, but he takes it up another here, representing a kind of brash, go for the gold, warped sense of justice that many Americans want to identify with. We want to be the ones riding in like a white knight to stop corruption, but Roth shows us that even the most just have flaws. It’s a tour de force performance that could have stolen the show, except that many of his scenes were opposite Nate Parker, the unquestionable MVP of the movie. Parker, highlighted recently as one of Variety’s Top 10 Actors to watch, is marvelous in the role of Jimmy Grant, representing the average American how wants to make a life for themselves and is willing to help a friend. Your heart aches for him when Roth turns his attention away from the real criminal and towards his character, revealing the tormented nature of a man who just wants to change his life for the better and in doing a “good” thing might not get that opportunity. Parker performance is so raw and unflinching whether giving off “angry black man” quips or in baring his soul to Gere, pleading with him to help make everything right again.

There are two shots in particular that really sum up the film for me. One is when Brit Marling’s character is about to confront her father Robert about his fraud. She’s sitting on a chair starring out of a window over looking Central Park and the gorgeous lower Manhattan skyline. It’s striking that in what will probably be Robert’s lowest moment, the time when his sins will really catch up to him, we see the luxury he’s be afforded. This is contrasted with Jimmy sitting outside of the deposition room looking out of the window viewing nothing but brick buildings, as if his life has been boxed in, his dreams put on hold, by his desire to help a friend.

Arbitrage is a masterful film that everyone should run to go see, a thought provoking work that will have you on the edge of your seat till the final frame.