On occasions the protagonist of Arbitrage, Robert Miller, comes close to being a caricature of a corrupt businessman, or at least someone we’ve seen on screen plenty of times before. “You think you can fix this with money?”, he is asked. His straight-faced response: “What else is there?”.
Yet Richard Gere is compelling as Miller, high-profile boss of a multi-million dollar hedge fund who is trying to keep himself out of trouble after cooking the books following a failed investment. Soon enough, the philandering philanthropist doubles the trouble he’s facing by accidentally killing his mistress, Julie, in a car crash.
If Miller’s not exactly sympathetic, then, Arbitrage goes out of its way to suggest he’s no monster. There are token attempts in director Nicholas Jarecki’s script to keep the character multi-faceted; references to a previous good deed and unexplored charitable endeavours suggest he could be, or have been, a good man when most of the evidence put in front of us emphasises darker aspects. Robert Miller could have been crafted by Arthur Miller; he’s a flawed patriarch, trying to delude others – and perhaps himself – that his actions when backed into a corner are justified as they benefit his family, even if only by maintaining their lavish lifestyle. It all feels plausible, and much of that is down to Gere, by turns charming and cold.
The film plays out partly as a police procedural; we know what happened, so the pleasure is in working out where each of Miller’s lies may have got him – or at least how much time he has bought himself – and how aware he is of this. In one of the finest scenes, Detective Bryer (an excellent Tim Roth) turns up at Miller’s office to question him about Julie’s death and finds various lines of enquiry convincingly repelled. Jarecki doesn’t labour the suspense, though; the response to Miller’s evasions is made clear within two scenes through a conversation between Bryer and a colleague.
Then there’s the domestic concerns: Miller’s daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) is responsible for his company’s finances, so he’s betraying his family on two fronts. Susan Sarandon, as his wife Ellen, gets plenty to do with little screen time, and the film moves swiftly, and smoothly, between the results of his two crimes. It’s a balancing act, for Miller and Jarecki, and it’s admirably lean; no scene feels unnecessary and the drama – there’s plenty – never drags.
Power corrupts is hardly a new message, but this is confident storytelling, relying on its engaging premise, smart script and fine acting to generate intrigue.
‘Arbitrage’ is released on 1 March