Unlikable characters are difficult to get right, because their personalities inherently repel the viewer. So when a movie features a protagonist that is, on paper, entirely unlikable, what is a filmmaker to do? The answer: hire a great actor to make the character so believable that the audience finds truth in them, even if they don’t sympathize. In “Arbitrage,” director Nicholas Jarecki does just this with Richard Gere, who reprises the callous, money-grubbing sort of role that he famously played in “Pretty Woman,” except here, he does not have the charming buffer of Julia Roberts between him and the audience. Gere’s performance is so convincingly slimy that the viewer can’t look away; in real-life, his character’s repeatedly selfish decisions would be wholly alienating, but in the context of a third-person observation, the man is a fascinating human embodiment of Wall Street corruption.
“Arbitrage” is a man-on-the-run thriller in the guise of a financial movie. Gere plays Robert Miller, a hedge fund magnate who is about to complete a deal for a merger, which requires him to commit tax fraud to cover up a reckless investment in a failed copper mine. His personal life is also consumed by a cover-up. Early in the film, Miller crashes his car, resulting in the death of his mistress, a French gallerist named Julie (Laetitia Casta). Determined to evade responsibility, he turns to the son of his former driver to help conceal the tragedy, while seasoned N.Y.P.D. detective Bryer (Tim Roth), convinced of Miller’s culpability due to the high roller’s past evasions of the law in the financial sector, doggedly tries to bring him down. All the while, the ongoing merger deal looms in the background to heighten the consequences should Miller be caught and held accountable for his crimes. The car crash is a tangible wake-up call to Miller that his immoral actions—including the ones committed in plush Wall Street offices—caused real damage to people.
Needless to say, Miller is under considerable pressure, and Gere wisely inhabits the role as someone who cannot afford to let the cracks show, evoking well-known Wall Street cheats like Bernie Madoff. When he is in the public eye–during a TV appearance, for instance–the man appears calm and collected. But in a later scene, which takes place in the backseat of Miller’s car in a tight closeup, Gere reveals the profound inner torment he feels about the crimes he committed and the death he caused. Miller’s indiscretions will strike most audience members as condemnable, but Gere’s performance never sidesteps humanization — the viewer is forced to fully consider this man not just as a symbol, but as a real person.
The highlight of the supporting cast is Tim Roth, whose characterization of Bryer draws sharp surface contrasts with Miller, even as two men ultimately emerge as startlingly similar in their unscrupulousness. When the characters meet for the first time, Jarecki cuts back and forth between them as they sit opposite one another: Roth practically lays in his chair, while Gere sits bolt upright, with a leg crossed in front of him, adopting the attitude of a true patrician. Roth uses his uncultivated physicality to show the audience that Bryer comes from a background that despises people like Miller, providing Bryer with all the more motivation to ensnare him. Given his commitment to justice, Bryer is an easier character to root for, and Roth plays into this with gruff authenticity. But the fact that Bryer, like Miller, is willing to cut corners for his own gains is indicative of the moral shades of gray that Jarecki uses to paint this picture of the financial world.
One of the film’s few flaws is that Jarecki’s script can be a bit difficult to follow. The high-finance setting turns out to be ripe for drama, but the characters frequently throw around unfamiliar terms that have a tendency to distract the viewer from subtle plot details. Furthermore, the early scene in which Miller’s merger is discussed skirts concrete details, leaving Miller’s exact financial wrongdoings unclear. (That said, the film’s decidedly swift exposition does benefit the pacing.)
“Arbitrage,” with its dictionary-requiring title and reportedly tiny budget, may not garner a large fanbase. But the film’s two dynamite performances make it worthy of the attention of anyone looking for a smart thriller that manages to be compelling without devolving into gratuitous violence. The movie is a substantive anodyne to the cheap gore, awards bait, and holiday schlock that dominate the cinema at the time of the year.
“Arbitrage” is now playing in select theaters and on Video On Demand.