Among indie filmmakers, the financial crisis of the past few years seems to be a creative gold mine. A great number of films have sprung from the incidents of the past few years, with a few, like Margin Call, standing out. With a prestigious cast led by Richard Gere, Arbitrage aims at the top of this heap, but fails thanks to a surprisingly amoral story.
Robert Miller (Gere) is a venture capitalist urgently trying to sell off his empire in order to hide $400 million in debt, of which his investors, as well as his daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), are unaware. The rest of his family, including wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon), question his motives to sell off his empire, but refuse to delve into his rationale.
Complicating matters for Miller is his mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta), an artist he supports financially. While driving Julie away from the city, Miller falls asleep at the wheel, crashing the car and killing Julie. Rather than call the police, Miller walks away from the crash (with some internal injuries) and calls Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of his former chauffeur, from a payphone to whisk him back to the city. Miller attempts to mask his pain while trying to close his deal, but he finds himself in the crosshairs of Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), a detective who finds the scene of the accident unsettling.
Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki crafts Arbitrage as the sort of adult thriller that populated theaters in the 80s and 90s, a type of thriller that rarely gets made these days. The cast is uniformly strong, with Gere in particular standing out. Unfortunately for Jarecki, he’s crafted a film where the central figure is wholly unsympathetic. Miller is a philandering embezzler attempting to cover up a death for his financial gain, and regardless of how good Gere is in the role, you can’t help but want Miller to get his comeuppance. It doesn’t help, though, that as the main antagonist, Bryer is willing to cut enough corners where audiences will not want to root for either side.
Arbitrage is, ultimately, a troubling film. For all of the talent in front of and behind the camera, it can’t get away from being a film about “rich white guy problems.” It simultaneously judges and exalts the sort of attitudes that are problematic in our society, and the film seems to enjoy staying in these gray areas.