We tend to identify with the leading character of a film, even if he is a heartless bastard. Few films illustrate this curiosity better than Nicholas Jarecki's "Arbitrage," and few actors might have been better at making it work than Richard Gere. Here is a man involved in a multimillion-dollar fraud, who cheats on his wife, tries to cover up the death of his mistress and would throw his own daughter under a bus. Yet we are tense with suspense while watching him try to get away with it.
Gere's Robert Miller is the embodiment of a Wall Street lion, worth billions, charming, generous, honored, and a fraud. He's involved in the merger of his venture capital empire, and has hidden $400 million in debt not only from the investors, but even from his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling).
She is the CFO of his empire. Young, smart, she doesn't suspect her father has cooked the books. If the deception is revealed, she'll be hung out to dry. We're left with memories of Bernie Madoff's associates and family members.
Robert Miller has a high-maintenance mistress named Julie Cote (Laetitia Casta). His classy, well-maintained wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), knows he plays around, and accepts that as one of the rules of the game.
When a car crash kills his mistress, Miller calls in a favor and somehow holds it together as he continues his juggling act with the business deal. Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), a scruffy police detective, investigates the accident scene, and, to Miller's surprise, turns up to question him.
We may have seen elements of this scenario before, but Jarecki, a young writer/director making his first feature, proves himself a master craftsman with a core of moral indignation. He knows how to make a gripping, well-constructed thriller.
Hitchcock called his most familiar subject "The Innocent Man Wrongly Accused." Jarecki pumps up the pressure here by giving us a Guilty Man Accurately Accused, and that's what makes the film so ingeniously involving. We can't help but identify with the protagonist. It's coded in our moviegoing DNA. Yet we watch in horror as Miller is willing to betray anyone in order to win at any price.
This film, especially its ending, could not have been released under the old Production Code. It represents a radical revision of traditional values. It is an attack on new American ethics that value wealth above morality. Many of us may regard Robert Miller as an example of financial executives who knowingly sell worthless investments to people who trust them, and then bet against them themselves. This was one of the crimes of Wall Street that brought about the collapse of financial markets. Charges were never filed against those thieves. They're still at work. "Arbitrage" is not only a great thriller, but a convincing demonstration about how the very rich can get away with murder.