Thursday, February 6, 2014

Arbitrage (2012) [R] ****

A film review by Frank Wilkins for

First-time filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki capitalizes on both his knowledge of the inner-workings of the financial industry as well as our scarred recollections of the most recent financial meltdown to create Arbitrage, a fascinating thriller that smolders with contempt and crackles with life.

Inspired by a series of essays that ran in Vanity Fair, Jarecki set out to develop a suspense-filled thriller about love, loyalty, and high finance -- one revolving around the turbulent excesses of Wall Street during the most recent economic crisis when corporations considered too big to fail were headed by finance guys too smart to succeed. Jarecki’s story also plays like a cautionary morality tale with a strong noir character study on its ledger. A big task for sure, to take on a story with so many moving parts and multi-layered themes, especially for a first-time filmmaker. But with a great cast, including Richard Gere at the top of his game, and a terrific understanding of what it takes to entertain an audience, Jarecki successfully tackles those themes with an entertaining and unsettling film.

Richard Gere is Robert Miller, the portrait of success in American business and family life. We first meet him at home celebrating his 60th birthday where the camera lends careful attention to show Miller’s cherished relationship with close family and friends. But his wife’s (Susan Sarandon) cheek is barely kissed, his children hardly hugged, and the birthday candles not quite blown out before we next see Miller in the embrace of his gallery-owner mistress Julie Côte (Laetitia Casta).

We soon find out that Miller is in way over his head, desperately trying to complete the sale of his multi-million dollar investment company before anyone finds out he’s been cooking the books to make it look more valuable than it actually is. Miller’s misdeeds and shaky business practices also threaten his daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), the firm’s Chief Investment Officer and heir apparent to his wobbly empire, who hasn’t been told about any of this.

But just as the sale of his troubled empire is about to collide with the revelation of his dirty dealings, things get worse for Miller. Much worse. He’s involved in a car accident that brings tragic consequences forcing Miller to juggle family, business, and crime with a cover-up aided by Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), a face from Miller’s past.

The once suave, sophisticated and much-loved Miller suddenly becomes the villain. After all, it’s not too difficult to muster a heaping helping of hatred and disdain for the face of those too big to fail. Yet, surprisingly, there’s something about the man that doesn’t allow us to view him as the bad guy. Instead that role belongs to NYPD Detective Bryer (Tim Roth), who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of Miller.

Our sympathetic feelings toward Miller are evoked as the result of both Jarecki’s writing and direction as well as by Gere’s wonderful performance. Our loyalties are turned topsy-turvy as we realize we should downright loathe Miller and his anything-for-money actions, but Gere has a way of making us buy into the ruse that he’s doing it all for his family. If Gere fails to convince us here, nothing else matters, for the entire film rests on his shoulders.

Arbitrage is at its best when Jarecki leaves us challenging our own morals and questioning what we believe are well-defined boundaries of acceptable behavior. Why, as the noose of recompense tightens around Miller’s slimy neck, do we simultaneously experience a twinge of excitement when the weasel slips from the grips of justice?  We know better, but Jarecki and Gere make it so much fun to root for evil we just can’t help ourselves. Credit these two guys for creating a character so reprehensible and yet so magnetic -- a very hard combination to pull off in a single movie character -- that even Gordon Gekko would be proud.

Released by Roadside Attractions and rated “R” for language, brief violent images and drug use.

Labels: drama, thriller

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