One thing about New York City: In no other place on Earth are the very rich, the very poor, and everybody in between thrown together in such close quarters. The icy Arbitrage recognizes this to terrific effect. The proximity gives this slow-rolling chiller a note of social significance without sapping its strength as a crime drama.
Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, a billionaire hedge fund manager who falls asleep behind the wheel late one night and flips his car, killing his mistress (Laetitia Casta) whom he has impulsively decided to run away with. Though he walks away from the accident, it exposes the marshmallow foundations on which his seemingly cozy life is built. He can’t call the police because a vehicular manslaughter charge would torpedo the impending sale of his firm to a wealthy rival (played by Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carter). He needs to sell because his firm is secretly leveraged to the hilt, and he faces prison time if his business dealings come to light. In the days following the crash, Robert ceaselessly maneuvers to keep everyone in the dark: his wife (Susan Sarandon) about the affair, his daughter and chief investment officer (Brit Marling) about the financial fraud, and an NYPD homicide detective (Tim Roth) about his part in his mistress’ death.
Robert is not particularly likable, but we can’t help but be sucked in by his predicament and how he might be caught or get away. The movie adopts a coldly logical viewpoint toward its main character, which brings it into line with the same noble tradition as Hitchcock’s and Chabrol’s films. Robert would be easy to despise if his actions were motivated only by self-preservation, but he thinks about others too. He expresses as much concern for his investors (who will be bankrupted if his firm goes under) as he does for his own fortune. When Jimmy (Nate Parker), the 23-year-old son of a deceased longtime employee, faces serious prison time for driving Robert away from the scene of the accident, Robert moves to extricate him from his legal trouble. The fact that these other people’s fates are bound up with his own muddles the ethics in this story in all sorts of ways. Robert’s desire to do right by the people around him makes him somewhat sympathetic, but it also makes it easier for him to rationalize all his misdeeds.
This is a promising debut by Nicholas Jarecki, whose background is in documentary films. (Indeed, his brothers Andrew and Eugene have both directed striking documentaries on their own.) Other filmmakers might feel ill at ease capturing either Robert’s ritzy Manhattan milieu or Jimmy’s cramped digs in the outer boroughs, but Jarecki is comfortable in both places, which helps him handle this sprawling story with admirable precision. Robert’s frenetic business, legal, and domestic activities — the actions of a man who thinks no situation is too big for him to negotiate his way out of — are all rendered in plausible terms, and Jarecki tightens the screws with due expertise.
Where the director betrays his inexperience is in the way he handles his actors. The principal cast is extremely capable, but too many scenes devolve into melodramatic yelling. Oddly enough, it’s the relative newcomer Marling (a real-life former Goldman Sachs trader who gave up high finance to pursue an acting and screenwriting career) who comes off the best. Maybe underplaying simply comes naturally to this soft-voiced blonde, but she works to keep the proceedings from becoming shrill.
The film culminates in an ending that outraged the test audience with whom I saw it. I was thrown by the conclusion, too, but the more I thought about it, the more I started to think that Robert’s ultimate punishment is entirely appropriate. Arbitrage is a throwback, a film that tells a moody, morally ambiguous psychological suspense story against the crowded backdrop of the Big Apple, where the ripples of one’s actions can be seen so easily. In this, it’s most reminiscent of the best films of Sidney Lumet, who died last year. He would have liked this movie.
Starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and Brit Marling. Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki. Rated R.