Richard Gere has a knack for playing charmers and hucksters — people who, like him, are great at using their natural charisma for personal gain. In the finance thriller Arbitrage (2012, 1 hr., 47 mins., R), the scheme may be bigger — and the monetary stakes much, much higher — but Gere never forgets the most basic rule of the con: It’s short for ”confidence.” He oozes the stuff as Robert Miller, a Wall Street titan attempting to cover up his acts of financial fraud just long enough for the ink to dry on the contract for his company’s takeover. Meanwhile, the NYPD is nipping at his heels for fleeing the scene of a fatal car accident, and his daughter-cum-employee (Brit Marling) is coming dangerously close to uncovering his corporate malfeasance.
Despite its boring-as-a-balance-sheet title, the film is a tense thriller from director Nicholas Jarecki, who twists his narrative thumbscrews slowly and expertly. Susan Sarandon makes the most of her few scenes as the neglected wife who has run out of other ways to look, and Tim Roth is amusing as a tenacious detective out for blood.
But it’s Gere’s show. He allows his character only the barest hints of desperation, instead playing him like the shark that he is, forever moving forward lest he die. Miller is a deplorable character, a man for whom self-preservation at all costs is as natural as breathing. Even from the first reel, there’s no real chance for redemption — he can only save his skin, not his soul. This clearly isn’t A Chief Executive Officer and a Gentleman, but the fact that we’re still invested in Miller’s fate makes Gere’s performance that much more impressive. Maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising considering he once made hiring a prostitute look like a heartwarming romantic gesture, and here he manages to eke out sympathy for a character who deserves exactly none. He makes Miller the tenuous calm at the eye of the storm, with a flutter of anguish rippling across his face every once in a while to remind us there’s a whole lot going on beneath the surface. It’s one of the best efforts of Gere’s career — a Golden Globe nomination agrees — but it’s also one that hasn’t pinged many moviegoers’ radars this year on account of the film’s limited theatrical release. That’s a shame for a performance that grants such a great return on investment. A-