Arbitrage is a nearly seamless amalgam of the old and the new. At its structural core it's an old fashioned thriller, yet it's also fully in tune with the moral and corporate workings of modern America. It's about a businessman who we know is guilty of several crimes. It's the converse of the classic Hitchcock structure of the innocent man wrongly accused, yet the effect is much the same: by having a full understanding of the protagonist's guilt or lack thereof, the viewer is able to engage in their psychological world. It doesn't just provide greater suspense, but it allows thrillers to become character studies.
Arbitrage does a hell of a job pulling off both, often simultaneously. Richard Gere, who may be aging better than anyone alive, plays Robert Miller, a hedge-fund manager who's preparing to sell off his company for money-and to save his life. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone he knows, Robert has cooked the books of his company to help conceal a massive investment fiasco. The movie has all the makings of a great corporate thriller, and while it is that, writer/director Nicholas Jarecki has much more up his sleeve.
In a plot shift that gives the film some of its old fashioned flavor, we learn Miller is having an affair with a young artist who is shockingly killed when Miller dozes at the wheel and flips his car. The aftermath of this tragedy is brilliantly played by Jarecki. Miller realizes that his mistress his dead and his initial instinct is to call 911. He even punches in the numbers on his phone, but then we see Richard Gere's eyes flash and we know exactly what's going on in his mind. He puts away the phone and stumbles out of and around the car. His physical pain and anger penetrates the screen and feels almost palpable. It's one of many instances when you're reminded how great an actor Gere is.
Miller burns the car and walks away from the accident, but of course the next day he's being hounded by a detective, played by a devilish Tim Roth. The crime element of the movie is a contrivance in the best sense of the word. From the standpoint of pure craft, Jarecki manages to seamlessly blend it and the corporate storyline together. And what seems to elevate Jarecki above most screenwriters is the way that he chooses to merge them. Rather than intertwining them, the affiliation is in the moral angst that drives Miller through the intense days leading up to the sale. Miller takes on the guilt of cheating on his wife, killing his mistress, and lying to his daughter (who happens to be the CFO of the company) all at once, and watching Gere handle such an explosion of emotion is riveting. By presenting the the cards cut and dried, we know exactly what is going on in Miller's mind, such that even when Gere is acting calm and collected during anxious moments, we sense what's really happening in his head.
As traditional as the film feels due to its stressing of Miller's conscience, it's also full of the moral ambivalence of 21st century America. Standards have shifted, secrets are still kept even when they jeopardize one's moral integrity. In the words of Don Draper, "people do things." Roger Ebert noted that the ending of the film, which is absolutely perfect, yet also somewhat ambiguous, could never have been pulled off under the Production Code. Arbitrage's greatest feat is that it doesn't let human nature get lost in the entropy of contemporary morality. It's a terrific thriller, as entertaining as any, yet it's the way it thoughtfully treads these deeper issues of the American Man that raises its excellence.
One final note: keep an eye out for Nate Parker. He turns in a great performance here as a young man whose simple favor for Miller turns his life into a nightmare. Parker seems to have a knack for playing characters others can lean on. He does the same in Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which opens wide this week.