For all his leading man looks, Richard Gere has always been an uncomfortable presence onscreen: confident, sure, but strangely tense, even in supposedly laid-back roles like Pretty Woman and Dr. T and the Women. Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki puts the veteran actor to brilliant use in the insanely gripping Arbitrage, a drama about the manic, desperate calculations beneath the successful, seemingly calm veneer of a Wall Street bigwig standing on the precipice of total personal and financial ruin.
Gere plays Robert Miller, a venture capitalist dubbed “The Oracle” for his legendary ability to pinpoint successful investments. When we meet him, he’s trying to negotiate the sale of his company, celebrating his birthday with his loving family — his wife (Susan Sarandon) is a noted philanthropist, and his daughter (Brit Marling) is his CIO — while also trying to keep his French mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta), a budding gallerist, happy. The ease with which he drifts between these different, conflicting worlds suggests that Miller is pretty good at hiding things, at the workaday duplicity of living a double, maybe even a triple, life. Sure enough, it turns out that his company is in a deep, deep hole, and he’s been cooking the books to make it more attractive to potential buyers: He needs the sale to go through so that his losses can be covered. Then he decides to take Julie, who is feeling neglected, on an impromptu late-night trip to the country. But he falls asleep at the wheel, wrecks the car, and accidentally kills her. Fleeing the scene, he begins to set in motion an elaborate attempt to cover up his crime — at least just long enough to make sure the sale of his company goes through.
Arbitrage does something quite bold, in that it asks us to sympathize with a guy who would ordinarily be a villain, either in real life or in another movie. And I don’t just mean that the film elicits from us a kind of vague sympathy for how far he’s fallen; rather, we genuinely want to see this pseudo-Madoffian character emerge victorious. Hard-working cops, the innocent daughter, the honest-to-a-fault minions, the rightfully skeptical potential business partners, even the long-suffering wife — in another movie they’d be the ostensible heroes, the whistleblowers or innocent victims, but here they’re all obstacles to Miller’s ability to get away with his misdeeds. The film dares to make us want to see them knocked down.
There are holes in the plot, to be sure, but somehow we don’t mind, because for all the unbearable tension of Jarecki’s script, the central attraction here is the man in the arena: Gere has been a punchline so often that it’s kind of startling when he gets a chance to really act. Which is to say: Here he gets to show real desperation instead of just doing that Richard Gere thing where he sticks out his jaw and breathes really deeply. And he gets to show real anger instead of just … well, doing that Richard Gere thing where he sticks out his jaw and breathes really deeply. Maybe it’s just that the part finally fits the actor’s characteristically strange brand of confident discomfort: In one hilariously suspenseful late scene, Miller, almost moments away from collapse, sits down with a rival and negotiates a business deal with almost mythic boldness and bluster.
In the way it places us smack-dab at the center of an amoral universe, Arbitrage is not unlike Robert Altman’s Hollywood comedy The Player, in which Tim Robbins played a studio honcho who accidentally killed a screenwriter and got away with it, much to the audience’s figurative cheers. Of course, Altman was working in satire, and his film concluded with a big phony ending and a big phony American flag, rubbing our noses in our own complicity. Arbitrage does no such thing — admittedly, its ending isn’t as happy, though it is somewhat unexpected — but its refusal to do so is a different kind of condemnation in its own right. Confidence, whether genuine or false, the movie seems to say, is everything.