Nicholas Jareckis ARBITRAGE brings up an age-old question. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? Only in this case, the world gained is not just a showcase home, a formidable company, and an enviable family life, its also an intangible thing made of high-finance maneuvers with no material substance, and interpersonal professional relationships of an even wispier nature. In the rarified atmosphere in which Robert Miller (Richard Gere) has made his billions, and not noticed that his soul has been slipping away as appearance trumps truth, and reality is what shows up on a ledger sheet, the veracity of which is a slippery bit of fiduciary semiotics.
In the finest of classical tragedy traditions, Miller has let his hubris get the better of his judgment and as a result, a hard dose of the reality that Miller cant control intrudes, revealing his carefully constructed life as an all too fragile house of cards. The opening moments of the film show him at the height of his power, flying in his private jet, welcomed into the bosom of his loving family in the palatial New York townhouse he owns. It all looks like the American Dream, the son of a welder become a master of the universe, that is until a private conversation with his daughter (Britt Marling), who is also an officer in the family company. When she asks why he is selling the company when it making so much money, he replies that, among other things, he wants to spend time with his family outside the office. Taken with genuine surprise at the prospect, she wonders aloud with genuine confusion, what they would all do.
From there, many sordid details surface, a younger mistress who snorts cocaine and demands too much of Millers time, a fudging of the books, and, finally, an accidental death that brings Miller up short. They all reveal the hollowness that Miller has created for himself, the glittery surface that has as its support the same sort of creative accounting in his bookkeeping, which, if discovered, will send him to prison for 20 years or more. And here Jareckis writing becomes not just clever, but intelligent. Millers motives are pure. Or at least pure-ish. Any revelation of the cracks in his life will cost innocent people their livelihoods, will cost his family, particularly his wife (Susan Sarandon), a rock that adores but fails to see anymore, their sense of well-being. It isnt the obvious trope, but it is the most interesting one, as is Geres performance, that never takes the obvious route, but instead parries with self-delusion, noble instincts, and the moxie that made Miller what he is in every sense. It is a beautiful performance that is as unfussy as it is riveting in its precision. A final showdown with the man who wants to buy him out, but has been playing coy, is a bracing game of cat and mouse, with the mouse completely unaware of his rodent status, and the feline, Miller, savoring every moment of it with a gusto that makes sense of, if not all, at least most of what has come before.
Jarecki is not, however, interested in telling yet another story of misdeeds in the financial sector. His focus is wider than that, encompassing not the symptom, but the cause of such things, by introducing a similarly high-minded cop (Tim Roth) investigating the death in which Miller becomes entangled. Equally shrewd, probably just as smart, he is wearing just as many masks as Miller does in his many identities, in a quest for justice that is not above a few shortcuts. In the process, the definition of what constitutes a crime, and of what constitutes criminal intent, becomes a fascinating subtext that drives the story.
At one point, a truly innocent bystander drawn into the unfolding drama of Millers unraveling life, asks if the deal they are making is just about money and Miller replies with a completely sincere What else is there? Its a stunning moment, not just for the contrast it provides between Miller and the one person in the story who has unalloyed loyalty to him, but also for the matter-of-fact way Miller asks the question. A statement of fact the full implications of which have yet to hit home for him.
ARBITRAGE is a gripping story on every level. The twists and turns it takes are never glib, but rather integral to a character study of a man undone by his brilliance, and all leading up to an ending that will leave the viewer gasping even as the perfection of it hits home.