From Liberty Valance to Daniel Plainview, Hollywood has always loved a good bastard, and Richard Gere’s powerful, deceitful, and charming New York City tycoon Robert Miller, the towering figure at the center of Nicholas Jarecki’s stirring Arbitrage, more than fits the bill. Miller dominates every dialogue-heavy scene with his Gordon Gekko-like presence and Machiavellian pragmatism, playing the virtuous, Mark Twain-quoting family man one minute, only to slither off and fuck his European art-collector mistress (Laetitia Casta) the next. A delicate balance of ego and illusion, his formidable public persona is founded on his outward projection of success, wealth, and loyalty. Arbitrage chronicles in fine detail the extended moment when this white-collar lion loses control of this juggling act.
At its core, Arbitrage is a taut moral tale spun in motion by the escalating lies Miller spews in business, marriage, and family. Throughout the film’s crisp opening act, the threat of imprisonment and poverty weighs heavily on the character’s shoulders. His venture capital business is in the midst of a high-profile merger, projecting an image of confidence despite the fact that its bank accounts are stuffed with fraudulent monetary backing. But Miller’s high life goes into a full tailspin when he flees the scene of a brutal car accident that leaves his aforementioned lover nearly decapitated on the side of an upstate New York road. The impending police investigation by an equally cunning cop (Tim Roth) adds more ripples to an already spinning narrative whirlpool.
Watching Miller wriggle out of one bad situation after another is invigorating, mostly thanks to Jarecki’s sharp script and excellent direction of the talented cast. The way Miller manipulates his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), a naïve do-gooder and acting CFO of his failing company, is especially disturbing considering the deep generational bond the two are supposed to share. Jarecki sets their pivotal standoff in Central Park (reminiscent of the equally heated climax in Wall Street), lingering on both characters’ calculated words, which brim with an undercurrent of rage. Here, we realize family matters only when it’s convenient and financially beneficial to Miller, and the toll of his self-sustaining actions is both damaging and substantial.
If the film covers well-tread territory (a morally bankrupt player trying to prolong his own influence), it does so with pinpoint control of mood and theme. While each confrontation, a new layer of pressure is added onto Miller’s crumbling sense of reality, his resistance to change and brazen tenacity evokes the cockroach-like durability and survival instincts we’ve come to associate with most recession-era extortionists. Gere’s gripping performance is just as much physical as it is verbal. We see the man’s smooth face (doctored up with makeup in the first scene) age rapidly, revealing wrinkles, baggy eyes, and other physical signs of exhaustion as the film progresses. Post-accident, Miller even suffers from internal bleeding for a long stretch of time, adding another layer of tension to the mix. Though this ailment mysteriously remedies itself a few scenes later (one of a few glaring plot holes), Miller’s cover-up of his own potentially life-threatening injury becomes another example of the self-destructive extent he’ll go to in order to hide the truth.
Fittingly, Björk’s lyrics “I see who you are/Behind the skin” echo over the final moments of Arbitrage, one last reminder that Miller’s comeuppance won’t necessarily manifest itself in monetary loss, but in the destruction of his personal legacy. Permanent isolation from family is his penance. But does he feel the sting of this emotional exile? Arbitrage doesn’t force easy answers in the form of moral epiphany. Instead, we are left with a deeply conflicted man willing to compromise everything to retain the illusion. As Miller stands upright in front of an adoring crowd at a posh gala honoring his life’s work, it’s clear the man is ready to start anew with fresh pawns, more unsuspecting souls who only see the glimmer of success resonating off his outer layer of skin. This bastard, like so many before him, attracts people like moths to a flame, never thinking twice as he watches them burn.