Director Nicholas Jarecki’s thriller moves with precision
Published: September 11, 2012
Directed by Nicholas Jarecki
Opens at the Charles Theater Sept. 14
If at any point in your life you find yourself looking suave, in a tailored suit, and people are raising glasses of white wine in your honor, run. Because these things mean that you’re probably the main character in the first act of a movie, and you’re fucked.
Such is the fate of Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a hedge fund magnate whose perfect life creeps into chaos due to a bout of bad luck and series of bad decisions. Though at the film’s outset Miller embodies cool and collected success, in reality he’s pushing to sell his business before he gets pegged for fraud. And then there’s the French mistress (Laetitia Casta), whom he accidentally kills and abandons before the police arrive. Throughout, Arbitrage simmers with each of Miller’s mistakes, and the film’s twisted pleasure lies in waiting for his life to explode.
Director Nicholas Jarecki’s debut narrative feature is as tightly controlled as Miller’s facade, cleanly crafted, with everything tastefully placed. The performances are tense but subdued, Cliff Martinez’s score peppers a largely quiet soundtrack, and the plot clicks along like one domino piece crashing into the next. At times though, the film feels too engineered—perhaps a bit robotic—so those seeking a heart-racing ride might end up disappointed by its steady-yet-driving beat.
Gere’s take on Miller is appropriately dickish, with hubris to spare. When you first spy him peering over his wire-frame reading glasses, pen in hand, you know exactly the kind of guy he is: meticulous, a bit cold, driven. Gere makes him effectively unpleasant but not so much that following him throughout an entire film is a chore. With each nightmare that ensues, Gere’s performance remains confident, sure of his ultimate success, but when he’s waist-deep in shit, you realize there’s no way he can pull himself out. By that point, he’s made so many missteps that you’re eager to see him go down. Arbitrage is on such an even keel, though, that by the second half of the film you may find yourself checking out, a little less invested in witnessing his downfall than before.
One element of the story that keeps audiences emotionally engaged is Miller’s ties to Jimmy (Nate Parker), a man who owes him a favor and agrees to pick him up after Miller falls asleep at the wheel, flipping his car and killing his mistress. Being tied to the crime as an accomplice proves more dire for Jimmy than his wealthy, white counterpart, and watching his fate unfold is one of the more compelling aspects of the film. Unfortunately, once Jimmy’s subplot reaches its conclusion, that emotional element goes with it, and we’re left to watch Miller fester in the wake of his actions.
Brit Marling, as Miller’s daughter Brooke, is ever poised and willowy with an undercurrent of strength. Her life as she knows it begins to unravel once she uncovers her father’s transgressions, and she scrambles to keep it together. Even her outbursts are closely controlled, delivered in hushed tones after she realizes the ramifications of his shady business practices. Her mother, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), seems to have been a bit more in-the-know for quite some time, but after a period of silence she piles more woes on her husband when pushed to a breaking point.
Though this is Jarecki’s first feature, the director embarked into the world of moviemaking by studying filmmakers themselves, and it shows in the finished product. In 2001, he wrote the book Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start, a collection of interviews with directors about the process of getting into the film business. Arbitrage seems to be the result of careful study and contemplation, each element ticking away like gears in a masterfully created clock, and the thriller genre certainly suits this approach. At the same time, Jarecki has the guts to leave some questions unanswered, and it seems as if the story could just keep charging on long after the credits have rolled. So if you’re seeking a thrill ride, Arbitrage will deliver, but the experience is sure to be steady and on a fixed course, zipping you through one man’s demise until you arrive at its abrupt and dizzying conclusion.
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