Money equals morality in ‘Arbitrage’
Updated: September 17, 2012 11:16AM
Even if you’re a billionaire, it seems bad-news pigeons have a way of coming home to roost.
Less a high-finance thriller than an elaborate morality play, “Arbitrage” is a dramatization of the old ethical truism that telling one lie inevitably requires another dozen lies to keep the first one hidden. That’s certainly born out in the feature debut of writer/director Nicholas Jarecky (best known for “The Outsider,” his 2005 documentary about filmmaker James Toback), with a cynical modern twist. Namely, if you lie hard enough and smart enough, you might come through with your carefully constructed falsehoods more or less intact. Then all you have to hide is how much you’ve had to sacrifice to make that happen.
Fortunately for top-echelon hedge fund magnate Robert Miller (Richard Gere), if there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s making deals — and understanding how the world works. It may not seem that way at first, when first one crack, then another, appears in Miller’s carefully constructed public image as a brilliant businessman and a model of old-fashioned family values. When a particularly lucrative acquisition goes south, Miller winds up cooking the books to protect his reputation. Next, he has to engineer a merger with a larger company to cover the loss — while keeping the missing money hidden from auditors. Fraud, after all, only becomes fraud when it’s discovered, and as long as Miller can continue to keep an increasingly large number of balls in the air, he knows he’ll be fine. Until he’s involved in a car crash resulting in the death of his mistress, that is, and tries to hide his involvement, knowing an investigation would reveal everything and send him to prison for 20 years.
At that point, we’re pretty clear about the fact that Miller is a world-class sleaze, cold, ruthless, manipulative and arrogant, yet Jarecki manages to make something interesting happen. We’ve become so close to Miller, and so caught up in Gere’s subtle performance, which allows us to sympathize with the desperation under Miller’s confident veneer, that we begin to want to see him wriggle out of it. Which, of course, makes us uncomfortably complicit. Even when the detective pursuing him (Tim Roth) turns out to be as shady as Miller is.
That’s not made any more comfortable when Miller’s one guiding principal becomes clear: that the one who’s left standing at the end of the day, with the biggest bank balance, wins. Even when his behavior threatens his marriage, implicates his daughter in a major crime and endangers the future of the son of an old friend. (Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling and Nate Parker provide effective support as Miller loyalists put in harm’s way.)
One of those characters asks Miller if he really believes money will resolve all the problems he’s facing, and is taken aback when Miller replies, “Is there anything else?”
In a more conventional treatment, Miller would probably become a tragic figure when he realizes, too late, that there is something more — and it’s now lost to him. That’s not the case in “Arbitrage,” though, because Miller believes what he believes and there’s always more money to be made. As long as he stays in the game.