Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is a committed New York City hedge fund magnate with a loving wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), and an adoring twenty-something daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), already on her way toward following in his professional footsteps. Arriving home from a business trip, a nice 60th birthday dinner is waiting for him, and he speaks about how grateful he is to his family, that they are far and away his greatest achievement. Because he lives his life wheeling and dealing people in exchange for making a lot of money, Robert is outwardly charming. He seems like a good guy. And then, once the get-together is over, Robert slips away to be with his pouty mistress, much-younger gallerist Julie (Laetitia Casta), and the illusion is dashed. In addition to having an affair, he's ruthlessly trying to close a company sale before anyone discovers that he's been swindling millions. With pressures mounting, Robert makes the grave decision to go away with Julie, just the two of them, then nods off during the drive and causes a terrible accident. Julie is killed instantly, and Robert is not about to go down without fighting to disconnect himself from the scene of the crimeone that most likely would earn him a manslaughter charge.
The tastefully oily fictional writing-directing debut of Nicholas Jarecki, "Arbitrage" is a well-crafted dramatic thriller with a rare braininess and a deeply unsettling undercurrent. Robert Miller stands in as both protagonist and antagonist, his drive to retain his money, his power and his reputation at the possible cost of his loved ones proving to be his own worst enemy. He's a complex character, one that many viewers will find themselves rooting for and against, sometimes in the space of a single breath. Casting Richard Gere (2008's "Nights in Rodanthe
") in the part goes a long way toward accomplishing such a tricky feat; if one were to simply dislike Robert Miller from the get-go, the rest of the movie would lack momentum in interest. That we do care on some level about himand genuinely like his wife and daughterups the stakes exponentially. That he is willing to throw other people under the bus, like his otherwise innocent accomplice, Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), who agreed to pick him up the fateful night of the crash, makes said viewers wonder why. As Robert gets in over his head, he sneakily keeps coming up with ways to wiggle out of tough situations. What he cannot do is keep the respect of family members who are disappointed by the behavior they see before them. Ellen is much smarter than she lets on, while Brooke is in for a rude awakening about the father she always looked up to. When push comes to shove, she's not his child so much as she is just another business associate.
Nicholas Jarecki's script and ensuing picture work on multiple levels: as a suspenser, a shrewd character study, and a snapshot of a segment of the Manhattan upper-class in the face of personal and financial crises. Less "inside" than 2011's "Margin Call" but certainly more insightful than the recent shallow David Cronenberg turkey "Cosmopolis
," "Arbitrage" is set in the present-day, but could almost as easily take place in the 1980s or '90s. More of a human story than a specific comment on the current times, the film yields a timeless aura. The glossy cinematography by Yorick Le Saux (2010's "I Am Love
") matches the fine sheen of the Millers' lifestyle while painting nighttime New York as a moody, irresistible place of possibilities and secrets. The part-jazzy, part-off-beat music score by Cliff Martinez (2011's "Contagion
") assures the pacing retain immediacy with more than a hint of menace.
Richard Gere has always, bar none, been a reliable, hard-working actor, yet, amazingly, he has never received an Academy Award nomination. If there is any justice, that will change with his superlative work as Robert Miller. Gere is center stage for nearly every scene, and he holds the screen with the attention and authority that his character needs to command. Better than that, he is able to turn on a dime between charming and despicable, the things in his life that should be most important taking a back seat to his single-minded drive not to lose the material he's procured. When he attends Julie's funeral and hugs her grieving mother, it is difficult to tell if his grief is sincere or disingenuous. He may feel bad about what's happened, but he feels even worse about what it might mean for him if others find out he was the cause of the accident. That he can look Julie's mother in the eye, knowing all along that he killed her daughter, speaks louder than words ever could. Susan Sarandon (2012's "Jeff, Who Lives at Home
") is excellent as Robert's stay-at-home arm-jewelry wife Ellen, perhaps slightly underused at the onset until she reveals the full breadth of what she knows of her husband's unsavory extracurricular activities. Sarandon's climactic face-off with Robert and she takes advantage of her upper-hand, the consequences of their future be damned, is powerfully played. As daughter Brooke, Brit Marling (2012's "Sound of My Voice
") is a dynamic and earthy screen presence, holding her own against more experienced actors. This is no more the case than during a crushing scene where Robert tells her, "You are not my partner. You work for me." "For a second," a crestfallen Brooke replies, "I thought you were gonna say you were sorry."
"Arbitrage" is not exactly air-tight, demanding a certain suspension of disbelief as police detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) fails to connect some obvious dots that would incontrovertibly link Robert to Julie's death. Fortunately, the film is less about the ins and outs of the investigation and more about how the guilty party reacts to it, conniving in every way he knows how to stay afloat. By the end, his family knows enough of the truth that relationships have wilted. Presenting an award to her father at an evening gala, Brooke says what she's supposed to say, but no longer believes the words that have been scriptedand Robert knows it. As applause fills the room, one gets the sense that he's never felt emptier. The irony, then, is that he finally has what he's wanted all along. "Arbitrage" disturbs through the dishonesty and deception of its lead character, then carries on to haunt long after it's over.