Richard Gere has a very placid surface — stoic and unruffled, quietly amused — that can, on occasion, result in his coming off as a bland actor. But that same quality makes him perfect to play men who like to cover things up. In Arbitrage, a tasty financial thriller written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki (it’s his dramatic-film debut), Gere is Robert Miller, an investment titan who is standing at the precipice (though almost no one knows it). Playing this luxe silver fox, Gere has never been more likable or alive on screen. His friendly dry charm works for the film in fascinating ways, since Robert, as we learn, is a world-class sleazebag. He lies and sleeps around, he commits major financial fraud, he slinks away from a car accident that was all his fault — and the film makes no apologies for any of this behavior. Yet we’re torn between wanting to see him pay for his transgressions and get away with them.
That, as Hitchcock knew well, is the way a true thriller works: It creates moral urgency by making the audience complicit in what it knows is wrong. The early scenes of Arbitrage have some of the stomach-churning, high-finance vertigo that last year’s Margin Call did, as we discover that Miller, a billionaire hedge-fund magnate, is trying to sell off his company but is covering up a $412 million hole in the firm’s portfolio. To cook the books, he has borrowed the funds from a fellow tycoon, who now wants his chunk of fortune back. Can Miller stretch out his money-mirage scheme long enough to close the deal?
Just as we’re settling into the fun of watching Richard Gere act benign and silky-smooth on the surface even as he telegraphs the jangled nerves he’s concealing, we find out that he’s got other, tawdrier problems: a high-maintenance mistress who throws fits if he’s 15 minutes late, and then…that car accident, which he tries to cover up. This stuff could almost be a movie of its own, but the way Jarecki’s sharply structured, tautly written drama keeps overlapping Miller’s dilemmas, tightening the screws to make him (and us) squirm, really works. That the film isn’t all high-end jargon and number crunching makes it seem less insidery than Margin Call, but the theme of dirty money is just as rich.
Drawing on elements of the Madoff case, Arbitrage digs into how money, when there’s this much of it and it’s traded this abstractly, tends to breed duplicity, and how that dynamic spills from the financial into the personal. Tim Roth is tensely funny as the film’s Columbo/Javert figure, a detective who keeps showing up like a pesky mutt, and Susan Sarandon (as Miller’s wife), Nate Parker (as the Harlem kid with a mysterious link to him), and even Graydon Carter (in a flourish of a cameo) make the most of well-etched roles. The film doesn’t turn its issues into a glorified essay, but it does use them to give the audience a vital emotional workout. Jarecki, it’s clear, has the talent to make shrewdly pleasurable Hollywood movies. Here’s hoping Arbitrage is the first of many. A-