Movies about powerful men behaving badly when trapped like rats have become something of their own genre in Hollywood. Notable examples include George Clooney’s brazen “fixer” in Michael Clayton, Christian Bale’s murderously lascivious Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (a movie as sweet as it is transgressive and cynical), and now Richard Gere’s Robert Miller in Arbitrage, the first narrative feature from young documentarian Nicholas Jarecki (The Outsider).
The Miller character is a cross between economist Nouriel Roubini and a younger Warren Buffett — though he’s also a man desperately trying to convince his family that he’s a modern Atticus Finch. The first 20 minutes of the film are spent gradually going through the motions of Miller’s schedule, which coolly marries his legitimate office routine and his sordid affairs. In fact, it’s presented so coolly that it may be the most realistic portrayal ever of just how easily white-collar criminals blend the legal with the illicit.
Miller’s comeuppance is on the horizon, however, when he gambles hundreds of millions of dollars of his hedge fund’s cash on a bad bet. His despair is then multiplied after a car accident reminiscent of Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick crash, which leaves one of his various mistresses dead, her cocktail dress soaked in blood.
Miller flees the scene with multiple broken ribs and possible internal bleeding, and phones a “friend,” ex-convict Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), whose father did business with Miller. The rat believes he is absolved and on the verge of getting off Scott-free, but the law is actually hot on his trail in the form of the suspicious Detective Bryer (played by Tim Roth with a palette of facial expressions that simultaneously charm and spell doom), who vows that he will “not let another rich asshole get away with murder.”
Despite a dearth of memorable roles in recent years (2002’s Chicago notwithstanding), Gere is back to form here. Draped in a bespoke suit and sporting a mercurial temper, the actor’s ferocity ranges from used-car-salesman persuasiveness to remorseless, rip-out-your-jugular aggressiveness. Miller is a chameleon who’s not ashamed of his practiced camouflage, though he insists on regularly defining himself in a way that’s more favorable to his image.
When confronted by his daughter (Brit Marling) over fraudulent accounting practices, he falls back on the standard defense: “It’s my job. I’m the patriarch. You don’t know what this world demands of me.” But when told, “Nothing is beyond money with you, Robert,” he simply nods in agreement. The cockeyed spin of Miller’s moral compass is clearly defined and acceptable to him no matter what, even when he’s attempting to put on a Mr. Chips facade for his wife (Susan Sarandon) and kids.
It should be noted that the practice of “arbitrage” in over-simplified terms refers to buying a commodity in one market at a low price in order to sell it at a higher price elsewhere. It is to bet on both sides of the game, and in Arbitrage Miller literally carries out this financial practice while also exploiting the cluelessness of his family and colleagues.
But amid the cluelessness, Jarecki does well in keeping the film focused on Miller as he’s psychologically batted from place to place. One complaint: the first-time director settles for telling us everything instead of allowing the audience to interpret events. That complaint aside, Arbitrage is highly recommended.