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Sunday, September 16, 2012

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on 16 September 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Richard Gere, Tim Roth, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta, Nate Parker
Director: Nicholas Jarecki
Rating: 4 stars
What is it about a thoroughly corrupt man, who snaps, “Everyone works for me!”, and would rather send an innocent man to jail for ten years than have his face in the tabloids, that draws us to his side? Why do we want him to get away with everything – fraud, manslaughter, cheating – especially when he’s too proud to apologise for anything? His only defence to his detractors is that this is the way the world works, and yet we want him to come out unscathed.
Maybe it’s the director’s skill. Maybe it’s the fact that Robert Miller is played by Richard Gere. But Arbitrage has us rooting for ‘evil’ from the word go. What’s wrong with rich people wanting more and more? Why should someone be dragged to the chopping block just because a relatively safe bet he hedges backfires? What is wrong if his principles are for sale?
A good actor can lead us to his side even when he’s playing a despicable man, but it takes something else to make us resent his righteously angry wife, especially when she’s played by Susan Sarandon. And to make us dismiss his daughter as a sententious twit, when everything she says is right.
The brilliance of the story, written by director Nicholas Jarecki, draws from the credibility of his characters. No one is good. No one is bad. People are driven by circumstance, and their natures drive their reactions. Philosophy is incidental to the film – we can debate whether the end justifies the means, or whether some lives are worth more than others, but that isn’t its main concern.
This is best exemplified in the character of Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), a man who doesn’t mind breaking the odd rule, or even framing a man, for a larger cause. Roth’s scene with Gere is particularly enjoyable, drawing out the best in both actors – Gere’s cool assurance and Roth’s self-deprecating wit.
The only character that doesn’t seem etched well enough is that of Miller’s wife. We don’t quite get a handle on her feelings for him. Is she in love with him? Did she make a safe choice in marrying him and staying with him? Or is it a sham marriage? If it is, why does she want to go on vacation with him all the time? And why does she care enough about him to give him a pep talk when he needs it?
The narrative is punctuated with well-timed comebacks and clever wordplay. The subplots are subtle – Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the son of Miller’s now-dead employee, says more with his tears as he hugs his girlfriend than he could have with a long tirade.
Logic tells us that a criminal who covers his tracks so messily that a detective pins him down five minutes into their conversation will be caught. Our consciences tell us that a man who barely grieves for someone he claimed to love, a man who plays with other people’s money and lives, should be caught. But we want him to go scot free. We cling on to the few good things he does, and tell ourselves he deserves a chance.
The Verdict: Arbitrage is an achievement of storytelling, acting and direction that shouldn’t be missed.


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