Arbitrage is one of the rarest thrillers around today – a morality tale that propels its gripping story through poor character choices and the ensuing aftermath rather than left-field twists and pointless action. The complexity of the characters on display in director Nicolas Jarecki's feature debut (and the fine actors who bring them to life) are fascinating to behold and deliciously infuriating in the way that the script forces you to rationalize on their behalf, even when they perpetrate some of the worst crimes imaginable.
The plot of Arbitrage is at its core very basic, but from that seemingly simplistic foundation springs forth a disastrous series of errors of near Shakespearian proportion, ultimately avoidable as they all turn out to be. We first meet with hedge fund manager Robert Miller as he hounds his subordinate to track down the CEO of a rival corporation for a final authorizing signature that will conclude the sale of his firm. Unbeknownst to everyone but him and his accountant, Miller has committed fraud and cooked the books to hide a disastrous investment in a Russian copper operation. Through this sale he can more than cover his losses and retire a multi-millionaire, but after another mistake (this time on a far more personal level) his transgressions at work pale in comparison.
It is through Gere's remarkable performance that we come to sympathize with a man who is not only a liar and a fraud that uses those he loves and dispose of those he needs without a second thought, but who also descends into something far worse: a murderer (at least in the eyes of the law). However, we can see deep down he loves his family, will right all financial wrongs with the sale of his business without anyone being hurt and mostly had non-malicious intentions when fleeing the scene of his crime. We become so caught up in this character's predicament and the world in which he thrives is so equally callous and ugly he comes off as part saint despite being everything an average person despises – he is the one percent and essentially rides above the law.
Having given up his mantle of A-list leading man some time ago, Gere, instead of rushing headfirst into subpar roles that would keep him somewhat in the spotlight, has become a superb actor in his own right choosing interesting projects from The Hoax to The Hunting Party. His performance in Arbitrage is perhaps his best work ever, exuding charisma, spewing malice and emanating explosive energy at the perfect junctures. Jarecki's script and Gere's work is the perfect marriage of actor and material.
The supporting cast is equally superb. Susan Sarandon does a great deal with limited screen time as Robert's wife, as does Brit Marling as his daughter and unofficial partner at the firm. Tim Roth does his evil thing without missing a beat as a determined and justice-blurring cop (though his accent slips a few times) and relative unknown Nate Parker as a past connection of Robert's who plays an pivotal (and emotionally potent) role in the deception does scene-stealing work.
Conjointly as is the case with ludicrous revelations and senseless violence, in most thrillers a last-act imposition occurs, stripping any good will that may have been awarded and leaving nothing but a sour taste. Arbitrage has a perfect – perfect – ending and is immediately preceded with two fascinating examinations of character in both Miller's wife and the buyer of his firm. The overarching theme amongst these catharses is that money rules all, but the execution and timing of both comes off as nothing close to hollow.
It is easy to fathom certain viewers being bored or put off by the deliberate pacing and stylistic choices Arbitrage makes, but that is no fault of this tense and involving film but rather of the spoiled, ADD generation that can't make it through 100 minutes of cinema without multiple shootouts, riveting as it all is. As the antidote to bland Hollywood white-knuckle escapism, Arbitrage is the sublime archetype, substantive and lasting and proving that smarts and dedicated performers can drive a compelling narrative.