Director/writer Nicholas Jarecki’s ‘Arbitrage’ is definitely a slick suspense thriller with Oscar worthy performances. A successful suspense film keeps you riveted to the screen. In a very good suspense thriller the film narrative is propelled forward by the considerable angst of its characters (think Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’). But this film is so much more – it is a moral tale with a deep insight into what makes our moral clock tick. And this is not a film driven by an amoral protagonist the likes of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko. Gekko is driven first by ‘greed’, ‘revenge’ and only then ‘redemption’, and on his own terms. Arbitrage’s Robert Miller has other motivations.
Jarecki never suspends or obfuscates the moral question but rather puts it at the centre of the cinematic discourse. Unlike Gekko (Wall Street), Jarecki’s protagonist Robert Miller, played to absolute perfection by Richard Gere, is driven by what seems to be an irrepressible responsibility to his family and business and herein lies the dilemma: to what extent do we blur moral boundaries out of loyalty and love, however perverse? Jarecki never really provides an answer, as any parable shouldn’t, he just lets it play out. Whether its Miller’s demanding French mistress, his lawyer, daughter and his Chief Investment Officer, Detective Michael Byer (Tim Roth), his business rivals or his wife (Susan Sarandon), each of the characters are complicit in the film’s moral ambiguity and particularly that of its protagonist Robert Miller. Each character seeks a form of ‘treasure’ and in doing so become agents to Miller’s transgression: for his mistress, a struggling artist, a gallery and posh Soho apartment and the love of a married man; his daughter (Brit Marling), the naïve ideal of her father as a ‘straight’ Wall Street operator; the zealous Detective Byer, who falsifies evidence, an opportunity to mete out justice at whatever the cost; and of course, the ubiquitous lawyer in the limo who reminds us that the law as it is now practiced has precious little to do with morality.
And while we are quietly rooting for Arbitrage’s rogue patriarch to solve his problems – we secretly want to like and respect him — the true hero of this parable is Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the son ofMiller’s deceased limo driver. Jimmy is unwittingly thrust into Miller’s morally ambiguous world and it is his yoke, out of loyalty, not to be a “snitch” or “turn over” Miller to Detective Byer that provides the film with its moral glue. Jimmy, a reforming convicted felon, is even pressed by his girl to take what amounts to hush money when what he really needs and craves is Miller’s affection, for Miller to live up to a promise to Jimmy’s father to “look out for him”, in effect to be a true Patriarch of his extended family. In a particularly poignant scene, Jimmy resists the exhortations of Detective Byer that he is merely “expendable”, worthless in Miller’s world. It is Jimmy’s unwarranted faith in Miller that allows the audience to be complicit in its understanding of Miller’s character and his actions. If Jimmy believes in him, so can we. But what we are actually witnessing in the story is what we see almost every day – the ‘greyness’, if you will, of our decisions when it comes to family, loyalties and those things or people we ‘treasure’ most.
This is an astonishing film, and particularly so because its ‘auteur’ is a mere 25 years old. Not only immensely talented, but wise well beyond his years, Nicholas Jarecki is bound to make great films. This is only Jarecki’s second feature. Look for the script and Gere to get a lot of attention at the Oscars and don’t miss this remarkable film. In theatres Sept 14th.