It’s instructive to note what a killer actor Richard Gere can be when a movie rises to his level. Arbitrage is such a movie, a sinfully entertaining look at the sins committed in the name of money. For proof that we’re in financial hell, look around. True, this territory has been covered from Wall Street to last year’s Margin Call. But Gere and first-time director Nicholas Jarecki put a tantalizing spin on what goes on in the head of a fraudulent hedge-fund manager when he decides to stick it to the rest of us, including his own family.
Gere’s Robert Miller is the picture of unflappable elegance. Good job on that, since he’s just lost $400 million in a bad copper-mine investment, and if he can’t cover it up and unload his company on a major bank, his career will go kaput along with his fortune. Fraud puts pressure on Robert’s skill at deceiving wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon), French mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta) and chief accountant Brooke (Brit Marling), who also happens to be his daughter. But Robert keeps his cool until the sudden death of one of these women has him dodging a possible murder rap with the grudging help of Jimmy Grant (a terrific Nate Parker), the son of the family chauffeur and the only black man in Robert’s circle of white privilege. That’s when NYPD detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) smells a rat and Robert’s world begins to unravel.
There’s enough plot here to stuff a miniseries or three, yet Arbitrage never descends to bland and predictable. Credit Jarecki, whose combustible directing debut gives Arbitrage the charge of a thriller and the provocation of a moral fable. Jarecki has an eye for the telling detail, not surprising given his start with the 2005 documentary The Outsider (about rogue director James Toback). Docs run in the Jarecki family, with half brothers Andrew (Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (Why We Fight) making notable contributions to the genre. As the son of two commodities traders, Jarecki has Wall Street in his DNA. And it resonates in his exceptional screenplay, which potently captures the gleaming seduction of Robert’s world and the fear that festers underneath.
Jarecki knows the territory. And Gere knows the man, inside and out. His rapt, watchful performance is a thing of toxic beauty. Gere digs so deep into this flawed tycoon that we come to understand Robert’s actions without for a minute forgiving them. Wearing the trappings of wealth like a second skin, Gere invites us to see what Robert sees. And the glamour in his field of vision – cheers to cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (I Am Love) for the sheen and composer Cliff Martinez (Drive) for the seductive mood – is tempting enough to make us all complicit.
Like the best movies, Arbitrage persuades us to ask tough questions about ourselves. And Gere nails every nuance in a role that holds up a dark mirror to the way we live now. Despite his box-office success in crowd-pleasers such as An Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman and Chicago, Gere has long been underrated. No Academy love, not even for his sinister brilliance in Internal Affairs, American Gigolo and The Hoax, or for the battered heart he brought to the cheated-on husband in Unfaithful.
Gere’s performance in Arbitrage is too good to ignore. At 62, he is at the peak of his powers. Watch him in the scene when Sarandon – in full, feisty flower – hits Robert with a lifetime of resentments. She can’t rock his composure. But Gere gives us a window into the soul of a man who finally realizes that even money will no longer help him lie to himself. It’s an implosive tour de force.