Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere in "Arbitrage." (Myles Aronowitz, Roadside…)
It's slightly depressing that some of the most riveting recent disaster films are dramas driven by precisely the sort of deceit that helped derail Wall Street. Last year there was the extraordinarily callous desperation of "Margin Call's" moneymen. Now comes "Arbitrage," taking a sophisticated swing at a hedge-fund magnate who is bankrolled by, and bets with, other people's money.
Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki squarely lands that punch, creating a tense and chilling horror story for financially fraught times. A seething Richard Gere stars as a financial puppet master suddenly reeling from his own power plays.
As drama goes, "Arbitrage" is a refined affair. The plot is a maze of brokered relationships, professional and personal alike, Jarecki's storytelling is peppered with the lingo of financial brinkmanship, and there is hubris in every move made by Gere's Robert Miller, an antihero bloodied and unbowed. Jarecki has given Miller a little humanity, so he's not quite as easy to root against as, say, Gordon Gekko in 1987's "Wall Street." Still, there is a lot to loathe.
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The movie opens with the sleek silver-haired fox on one of those fawning TV news magazine shows. He's got the corporate jet, the town car, the town house, the proper family. He seems at ease with his wealth and position, but underneath fires are raging. The acquisition of his billion-dollar enterprise awaits the stroke of a pen, and the buyer, a mysterious Mayfield, is stalling. (In an ironic cameo, "Vanity Fair's" Graydon Carter plays Mayfield; Jarecki counts the magazine's coverage of the Wall Street implosion among his inspirations.)
Despite Robert's titan-of-industry mien, it is the women in his life that rule his world. Susan Sarandon, whom we don't see nearly enough of anymore, is wife Ellen, overseeing charities and keeping the home fires burning. Daughter Brooke, played by an excellent Brit Marling, who literally wrote (or rather co-wrote) her way out of obscurity with the 2011 indie hit "Another Earth," is a brilliant analyst who works by her adored father's side. His mistress, Julie, an artistic beauty portrayed by the arresting French model-turned-actress Laetitia Casta, is already complicating his life. And that's before the late-night car crash that will end one life and put Robert's in even greater jeopardy.
The surrogate for our outrage and the man intent on holding Robert accountable, at least for the accident — there is also an audit of his money manipulations threatening — is Det. Michael Bryer (Tim Roth). And in case the anything-can-be-bought issues aren't black and white enough for you yet, the guy Robert calls to pick him up that night is Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), a Harlem kid the mogul once helped out of a jam, some sort of debt to the kid's dad.
The pleasure comes in watching as the screws tighten. Robert's world, like the markets he's played, begins shattering, his power to control high-risk situations ceases to work and the money that used to make problems disappear is suddenly worthless. It's fun watching him squirm.
As for Gere, he should play the bad guy more often. In allowing his duplicitous mogul to register, and regret, the pain he has caused, the actor has quite possibly never been better. As each domino falls around him, the tension takes hold in small, careful movements that mask the inner turmoil as he works his jaw, adjusts his coat, snaps at anyone who suggests he reconsider the risks while he can. That he loves the wife he cheats on, the daughter he betrays, the mistress he disappoints is never in question. That he loves himself more is a given. Gere makes the study of the man mesmerizing.
The conflicts themselves become the driving mechanism. As the stakes rise, the film shifts into a series of escalating "how could you?" moments and the transitions occasionally get rocky. There are scenes when the screen fades to black so abruptly it feels as if the director has momentarily run into a problem he couldn't quite solve.
Nevertheless it's an impressive feature directing debut for the filmmaker, who first made a name for himself in 2005 with "The Outsider," a cheeky Showtime documentary on indie filmmaking, another risky business. Jarecki has given "Arbitrage" the lux sheen of new money and a polish not seen in his earlier work. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, who brought such gritty street reality to another bad guy in 2011's "Carlos," shoots a New York that is crisp and cool.
Throughout the crafting of this chaos is contemporary and clever. Yet the message in "Arbitrage" is an old one — money is still the root of all evil, and whatever payback comes as a result, it is never enough.
MPAA rating: R for language, brief violent images and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In general release
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