It must be difficult being a shark, having to ceaselessly move forward. Compulsions make it so that no matter what obstacles are erected between them and their goals, they will barrel through them. These can often be drugs or gambling, but in America, that most popular goal is money. We’ve just been through nearly five harrowing years in which the financial institutions of the country were brought to their knees because of the slavish devotion to the bottom line, even if that line was false. Problems compounded upon problems until the burden was too much to bear and the whole thing came down. It’s this mentality that drives Arbitrage (2012), a wonderful thriller written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, making his feature debut. It tells the story of a man whose compulsive need to succeed is both his best friend and worst enemy.
The story is one that Hitchcock might have enjoyed. Robert (Richard Gere), a successful business man and family man, seems to have everything: a loving wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon), a beautiful daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) whose brains have made her the heir apparent, and a business that he’s about to sell for hundreds of millions of dollars. The only problem is that the company only seems to be doing great as Robert has lost a large amount of money in a bad investment, has borrowed that money to make the books look good until he can sell it, and now the buyer is playing hard to get while the man who borrowed the money wants it back. Robert also finds himself at the wheel of a crashed car that belongs to his mistress who sits next to him, dead from the crash. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that this type of scandal would very badly endanger the selling of his company so he tries to cover it up, bringing Detective Bryer (Tim Roth) sniffing around, becoming fanatically convinced of Robert guilt.
The word “arbitrage” refers to the practice of selling and trading in different markets at the same time. It’s a good description of what Robert is forced to do in his personal and professional life (though it’s not a very good title for a movie) as he scrambles to keep himself above water while manipulating the different actors in his dual dramas to behave as he needs them to. When one side starts going the way he expects, some new wrinkle will develop in the other to put both in jeopardy. The drama is taut and lean, propelling us toward the end. Arbitrage is smart while being understood it occupies an ambiguous bog of morality. It’s slick enough to entertain us with its story, but it requires a little self-appraisal of values and beliefs in return.
Much of this is thanks to Jarecki’s script which distills the complex legal and financial issues to basic elemental issues. Robert needs $400 million dollars. Detective Bryer needs to prove that Robert wasn’t at his house the night of the crash. Though it is dressed up as a tangled web, the narrative boils down to those simple needs. The script charges little moments with a lot of electricity. Responses like “Possibly,” uttered by Detective Bryer when asked if Robert is expecting him, hit like cold water and a moment that should have been sweet becomes chilling when a half-asleep Ellen reminds Robert to take his Lipitor as he slinks back to bed after the incident, clutching his damaged side. He’s got a lot more to worry about than his high cholesterol. When he tells a grieving woman that “It shouldn’t have happened,” he, and we, know just how true that is.
One large diversion Jarecki makes away from Hitchcock is his dealing with his protagonist. Hitchcock was obsessed with the innocent man wrongly accused; sometimes he’d show a man or woman who is being punished by the world far more harshly than what is due for their crime (for example, Vivian Leigh in Psycho dies because she stole the money, even if she wants to return it), but Robert is not an innocent man, and he is justly accused. In fact, Jarecki is insistent that we know how badly, at every turn, Robert is a screw-up. He made a bad investment, cheated on his wife, lied to his investors and family, tried to sell a company to buyers for half of what it’s worth, and fell asleep at the wheel of a moving vehicle, causing the someone’s death. We know this about him within the first half hour. The Hitchcockian trick that Jarecki pulls off is that we are in sympathy for Robert’s plot. If we don’t respect him as a man, we are empathetic with his struggle against the rat trap he’s in, even if he created it himself. It’s an impressive trick as Robert goes from scumbag, to entangled warrior, to conquering hero, to finally a villain brought to justice, and Jarecki deftly leads to all four places.
It doesn’t have Hitchcock’s gliding ability to have the viewer float through his movies, but who does? Some of the sequences get bogged down under the weight of their own supposed seriousness, but Jarecki does let us have some fun, even when things seem to be darkest, something missing from its predecessors in the burgeoning subgenre of the corporate profit and white-collar fixing movie like Margin Call (2011) and Michael Clayton (2007). The movie generates an unexpected laugh when we discover during a highly tense scene that Robert doesn’t know what an Applebee’s is.
Credit to Gere too, whose ability to charm is exceptional. We’ve been shown that Robert has made all the wrong decisions but we never for a second doubt what made him a success. During a negotiation when any other person would be falling apart at the seams, Robert pulls it together, makes the deal (after bartering with figures that we know are well more than he needs, his gall producing a smile on our faces), and then, as soon as the ink dries, the two combatants divulge what they would have settled for to find out who got the better of whom. Susan Sarandon brings a lot of gravitas to the thankless role of the wife in the dark. Her image, which always betrays a latent intelligence, and the script allow Ellen to be a little smarter than her cinematic ancestors and a lot smarter than the man she shares his bed with.
The movie traverses its slippery moral landscape with a confidence that is not uncommon of first-time directors but with a directness that often is. Many sins are on display here ranging from deceit to justice at any cost, and though Jarecki seems to make a value judgment about each, he doesn’t allow you the righteous satisfaction of doing the same. Thus, the ending, which is wholly gratifying on a cinematic and story level, leaves us a little emotionally unsettled, both because we don’t know if the rights have been wronged but also because we don’t know a better ending that would make it so. This isn’t a morality tale. Robert doesn’t learn a lot from his experience; he simply uses his smarts to work his way out of it, but they are the same smarts that got him into it. That’s OK. Too many thrillers, even complex ones, deal in black and white. Arbitrage is having more fun in the grays.