As a contemporary drama Arbitrage (2012), the new film from writer / director Nicholas Jarecki, is an engrossing essay on all that is wrong with the upper echelons of modern society, as well as those who deal in today’s world of big business. As a thriller the film starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth, is an equally gripping, if ultimately disquieting, tale of the corruption and moral destruction too much money can have.
Robert Miller (Gere) has everything – a successful business career, a beautiful wife Ellen (Sarandon) and an adoring and happy family. However he also has a sordid other life, with a sexy young mistress called Julie (Laetitia Casta) and some dubious financial dealings which threaten to bring his company to its knees. After a tempestuous meeting with Julie, Robert’s perfect and carefully constructed facade begins to crumble with disastrous results for all those who know him.
Arbitrage is one of those films which sticks in the mind long after its finished, mainly through the depressing sense it instills in the viewer that in today’s world, as long as you have money, you can get away with anything including killing someone (even if it is involuntary manslaughter). Its sense of injustice and depiction of Robert’s total ruthlessness and apparent lack of any moral compass, both personally and professionally, is as shocking and nauseating as any horror film.
From the gilded world of the Manhattan townhouse where the Miller family are safely cosseted from the rest of society, to the exclusive restaurants and streamlined offices where Robert’s below board business dealings unfold, the film plays out like a fly-on-the-wall glimpse at an exclusive club whose membership is restricted to those that believe their riches mean they are not subject to the same rules and laws as the rest of us. Gere and Sarandon are perfectly cast as the couple who on the face of it have everything but who, beneath their brittle exteriors, are cold and impervious to anyone but themselves, including each-other and the members of their supposedly warm and loving family. Sarandon in particular puts in a wonderfully sharp performance as a woman who believes that, like so many rich people, her social standing puts her above the law – her imperious dismissal of Roth’s frustrated police detective (when he comes to question her about her husband’s recent movements) with little more than a wave of her designer clad arm, is pure magic.
The depressing thing about Arbitrage however is the sense that, as with the bankers and corporate business men at the centre of recent real-life financial scandals, people like Robert can, on-the-face-of-it, slither their way out of most predicaments. As the age old adage states “what goes around, comes around”, meaning that ultimately corrupt people will have a price to pay in the long run even if it is just that they have to live with their consciences. Not that that is much consolation to the rest of us in the here and now.