The central character of Arbitrage is Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a billionaire hedge-fund tycoon from New York. The film paints a portrait of a very complicated, very contradictory man – prosperous yet financially troubled, responsible yet reckless, charming yet repulsive, charitable yet selfish, loving yet callous, protective yet cowardly, clever yet dense, powerful yet weak. It would be too simplistic to categorize him as a villain or a criminal; although he has been corrupted by his wealth, and although we know he’s capable of doing and saying some pretty reprehensible things, some of his actions vaguely suggest that a shred of humanity still lurks somewhere within. That being said, the much stronger suggestion is that his sense of morality is outside the mainstream, that he wants to have it all and will do whatever it takes to maintain that sense of superiority.
What’s really intriguing about this movie is that it seems to be about one thing but is in fact about something else entirely. The audience is strung along on the assumption that it’s a technical exercise, a routine yet serviceable Columbo-style crime thriller. The further it goes along, the clearer it becomes that its plot is not the main focus. The film is more an examination of the characters taking part in the plot. This is especially true of Miller. We see what happens, but what we care about is how he responds to each and every event. Part of his allure is that he’s so difficult to figure out; he’s an enigma you want to ponder over, even though all that pondering might not lead anywhere. It inevitably comes down to a single question: Is there enough of a human being left for him to man up and do the right thing?
This labyrinthine character analysis fits surprisingly well into a sequence of events that are in and of themselves easy enough to understand. The plot is actually twofold. In one storyline, which begins on the eve of Miller’s sixtieth birthday, Miller is anxious to sell his trading company to a major bank before his financial fraud is discovered and exposed. The automatic response would be to compare him to Bernie Madoff, but that wouldn’t be accurate; rather than deliberately aim to swindle investors out of their money, Miller is trying to cover up his own bad investment in a Russian copper mine. Obviously, he wanted to keep this hidden from his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), the chief investment officer of his hedge fund company. As soon as Brooke realizes that the numbers simply don’t add up, we watch with profound solemnity as an idealistic twentysomething descends into the depths of disillusionment.
In the other storyline, it’s established that Miller secretly divides his time between his loyal wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), and his mistress, a French artist named Julie (Laetitia Casta). In his mind, this is an ideal balance; he can be the dominant breadwinner of his family, and he can also be the secret lover of a vulnerable younger woman. This balance is upset when Miller gets involved in a careless accident, one that would be scandalous in the investment world. Desperate for a solution, he calls upon a young man from Harlem named Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the son of a man Miller once helped. Jimmy very reluctantly agrees to help, grateful for what Miller did for his father yet aware that his status as an ex-con puts him at even greater risk. Jimmy’s crisis of conscience will plague him all throughout the movie, especially once the law factors into the equation.
Here enters Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), a detective for the NYPD. He knows something is fishy about the accident and the circumstances leading up to it, and he firmly believes that Miller knows more than he’s letting on. He sniffs around Miller’s office with the same restrained, pleasant skepticism Peter Falk made famous, while at the same time maintaining his hardboiled New York edge. He leans hard on Jimmy, playing on the fact that his moral compass is far less defective than Miller’s. Bryer’s professional obligations as a cop will eventually conflict with his personal vendetta against Miller, who he believes is yet another rich criminal well on his way to beating the system. Why should working people continue to pay for the mistakes of the one-percenters? How long must he wait before justice is finally served?
This is not an especially original plot, but as I explained earlier, the plot is secondary. I grant you that this is not immediately apparent; the accident and the investigation are, from a technical standpoint, prominently displayed, as is a scene in which Jimmy appears before a grand jury and swears that a surveillance photo has somehow been doctored. These elements cleverly disguise the real focus of Arbitrage, namely the character of Miller. What are we to make of the fact that, in spite of his questionable personal and professional ethics, he takes part in his wife’s charitable functions and is known for his own brand of philanthropy? We face this question head on during the final scene, one of the most unsettling displays of cruel irony I’ve seen in quite some time. From a structural standpoint, it will leave you hanging. From an emotional standpoint, it’s right on the money.