Some of the most engaging movies I have seen tell their stories through unlikable characters I can hardly identity with or care about, and these movies remind me that we do not always have to like or identify with the hero/heroine to care about what will happen next in the story. No matter how much dirty or unpleasant they are, good movies can present their characters to us as compelling human beings to watch and observe, and we sometimes come to wish that they will be all right in the end even if they remain to be irredeemable.
In case of “Arbitrage”, we have a New York financial business man pretty good at using everyone around him including his family and then justifying his every dirty deed in the name of survival and family, and he is as despicable as those Wall Street scoundrels responsible for the recent financial crisis. Desperately trying to cover his serious financial mistake, he is going to sell his big investment company which is virtually a rotten apple, and now he also tries to cover his another crime for protecting that deal and himself. He is not a good man we can care about, but how he tries to maintain his cool, steely façade while busily juggling his multiple crises behind his back is thrilling to watch, and, thanks to Richard Gere’s superb performance, we somehow come to care about his eventual fate even though we dislike him a lot.
Richard Gere plays Robert Miller, the current CEO of the Miller Capital Company. During the opening scene, he is introduced as a prominent figure of the New York financial business world(At one point, we see his picture on the cover of the Forbes Magazine), and everything seems to be going well for him, his company, and his family, but it is slowly revealed that Miller is actually in a very desperate situation. He needs to sell his company at high price to another investment bank for erasing his recent big investment mistake – and accordingly saving himself from being arrested for fraud.
He is currently going through a private deal negotiation with that investment bank, but the deal is going nowhere due to his opponent’s continuing postponement with no apparent reason, and the time is running out for Miller hour by hour. He has managed to hide his loss from others, but there can a special audit on his company at any moment if the opponent requests, and, to make the matters worse, his daughter Brooke(Brit Marling), who works as the chief investor of his company, starts smelling something fishy inside the financial structure of his company, though this bright young woman has never imagined about how dirty and deceptive her dear father can be.
It looks like he really cares about his family during his birthday party at his home in Manhattan, but we soon sense his cold, estranged relationship with his wife Ellen(Susan Sarandon), and then we see him having an affair with a young art gallery owner Julie Côte(Laetitia Casta), who loves him but knows well that she will not be his second wife no matter how many times he says he loves her and needs her. Sure, he really needs her for having some private rest from his stressful circumstance, but, as she clearly sees, that is all.
And then, unfortunately, he comes across another trouble. While driving Juile’s car with her outside New York during one late night, he momentarily dozes off, and a fatal car accident happens as a result. He luckily survives without serious injury, but she is dead, and he knows this can ruin his ongoing negotiation due to the resulting scandal. Fortunately for him, there is no one around at the time of the accident, and there is not any incriminating evidence at the scene when the police arrives, and he manages to get back to his home without being noticed through a young kid named Jimmy Grant(Nate Parker), who was helped a lot by Miller in the past as the son of Miller’s former driver.
Miller seems to be safe for a while, but the situation becomes worse for many other reasons besides the persistence investigation by Detective Michael Bryer(Tim Bryer), and Richard Gere subtly depicts a pressured poker player hiding behind his confident mannerism while not making that aspect too transparent on the outside. Miller feels cornered at every minute, but he knows that maintaining his assured appearance is the best option for getting any chance of escape, so he continues to play his perilous game with that attitude without looking back.
In a terrific scene where he has the private meeting with a certain important character, he looks very casual in front of his opponent, but only we can see how much desperate he actually is thanks to Gere’s quiet but riveting performance. With no card to play except his own ability and luck, Miller does what any good poker player will do in such a circumstance like that, and we are thoroughly entertained by how good he is as a dirty wily business man determined to get out his trouble by any means necessary.
Meanwhile, we are also disgusted by how much lousy Miller is as a human being, and the actors surrounding Gere do good jobs on that as interacting with him on the screen. As a conflicted daughter finding more about her dad than she ever wants to know, Brit Marling has a hurtful conversation scene with Gere when Miller becomes a little more honest to his daughter, and Susan Sarandon is a bitter woman who has chosen to be oblivious to what her husband does outside their cozy house but is finally angry about what he has done to his family. Tim Roth is a detective eager to do anything to send the 1% people like Miller to the trial or jail, and Nate Parker is effective as a decent young man whose sense of loyalty and integrity is one of the crucial suspense elements in the plot.
The director/writer Nicholas Jareski gives us an engaging thriller which also fabulously works as a compelling character drama, and Richard Gere gives one of his best performances here in this film. Miller is not a good man at all, but he is a smart man who may get away with what he did, and we come to care about what will happen to him in the end while observing his behaviors and tactics with some degrees of fascination and interest. He is indeed a crook who certainly deserves to be punished, but isn’t it always a pleasure to watch a smart guy doing his best for getting his job done?