What makes Arbitrage so powerful is that it does not explicitly set out to indict all of Wall Street. You could understand the impulse to do so given the financial sector's role in the deep economic crisis from which America is still recovering -- a crisis so scarring that it is almost solely the focus of the presidential election a few weeks from now. It says something anyway about the power and the values of the ultra-wealthy, but it speaks softly.
Subtlety is not a requisite for powerful filmmaking -- indeed Oliver Stone's Wall Street is much more heavy-handed and yet still brilliant -- but I suspect that, in this arena at least, it has a better chance of resonating with more people. If you have a pulse, Arbitrage ought to stick with you. It centers on billionaire businessman Robert Miller (Richard Gere), who has it all on the surface but is utterly hollow beneath. If that's not a metaphor for the tranches and credit default swaps that enabled lower middle class folks to move into mansions during the early 2000s, then I don't know what is.
On the surface, Miller is supported by a loving wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and an adoring extended family, some of whom are trying to help him finish off the billion-dollar sale of his hedge fund. Behind closed doors, he has taken out a personal loan for an outrageous sum of money to dramatically inflate the value of his company to the people trying to purchase it and he is carrying on an affair with a failed art dealer, Julie (Laetita Casta), who is half his age.
This is awfully run-of-the-mill stuff for the rich and powerful -- in real life or in the movies -- but you're jolted out of it when Robert and Julie are involved in a horrific car wreck that kills Julie instantly. Robert is the driver and he is at fault, having dozed off moments before the accident. As any of us might, he panics and leaves the scene. But this is about where Robert and "the rest of us" part ways.
He calls Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the son of his deceased limo driver, for a ride from a nearby pay phone in the wee hours of the morning, no questions asked. He calls collect and uses the name of Jimmy's father to get him to come. He meets with his bigshot lawyer Syd Felder (Stuart Margolin) about what to do. His primary focus isn't doing the right thing, though. It's doing the right thing to ensure the sale still goes through. He has the gall to go to Julie's funeral -- to hug her weeping mother -- even as he hides his involvement in her death. He plays dumb with Det. Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) even as Bryer hones in on him for the crime. And he does all of this while juggling that other big deception -- the massive loan, the cooked books, the plainly fraudulent sale of his company for a sum, a number, the brain can't even comprehend.
There is a moment -- when Robert's daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), who also serves as his chief financial officer, discovers his creative accounting -- when you think that surely he has reached his breaking point, that his expertly crafted house of cards must fall apart. But, master manipulator that he is, he powers through, just like seemingly every other moment in his life that has taken him to this point. And it is right about then when you realize that Robert Miller is about a hundred times darker and more sinister than Gordon Gekko ever was. There are hints of remorse -- a needle that seems to be jittering about a buried and barely functional moral compass. But the substance of Miller's actions end up being purely amoral.
The word arbitrage, Wikipedia tells me, "is the possibility of a risk-free profit at zero cost." For those of us who don't breathe Miller's rarefied air, this sort of thing is supposed to be impossible unless the whole system is totally rigged. That's just the point of this film, I suppose. How should a creature whose primary comfort is having the system rigged in his favor be expected to operate anyway?
The excellence of Arbitrage is that it leaves those questions with you while never pondering them too extensively as it plays out. Make no mistake, this is a terrific thriller more in the mold of Michael Clayton than last year's Margin Call. Gere makes you wonder why he's in so few films these days as Miller, yes, but I was most impressed with some of the bit players, notably Roth and Parker. This is all about Miller, but the people in his world who get stamped upon are what keep the wheels turning long after the credits roll.