Arbitrage (2012) 4/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 78
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 107 mins
Director: Nicholas Jarecki
Stars: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling

The thriller is very much the forgotten art in Hollywood given the easy applicability of its format to the modern television episodic template and the fact that in the 21st Century, it has been almost entirely conflated with the action genre. It’s a shame because few films can engage the audience like a taut, economically written thriller that’s given between 100 and 110 minutes to play out. Thankfully Arbitrage is one of the few films to defy this trend and build a classy, modestly premised thriller from the ground up tightening all (or at least most of) the nuts and bolts as it goes.

Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, the head of a family owned financial empire that is in the process of being acquired by a larger corporation. A delay in the signing of the contracts at the beginning of the film generates an early sense of unease even though there seems, at least outwardly, no cause for concern. As Miller goes about his business, the veil is slowly drawn back on a financial overextension which places him and the deal on a complicated timetable. It’s at this point that writer-director Nicholas Jarecki turns the screw and plunges Miller into a nightmare of compounded pressures. An auto accident involving him and his mistress, prompts him to flee the scene and leave the dead art dealer behind in the wreck. As the pressure for him to finalise the acquisition escalates, so does the inevitable criminal investigation which Miller is simply trying to stay ahead of. Loyalties are tested, contracts both financial and emotional are made and broken, and the perfect image of him and his family tarnishes.

Critically for a purely dramatic thriller, Arbitrage establishes a series of layered tensions early on so the film has a low-key but rock solid momentum. The writing in these early stages is impeccably levelled so that the personal and business angles play off each other intuitively and not a scene is wasted. Gere reminds us what an accomplished lead he has always been. The good guy/self-server dichotomy that most find difficult to pull off has always been a staple of Gere’s and he continues to use it masterfully with every glance and half-smile. He is surrounded by a seriously impressive cast too. Best known of which is Susan Sarandon as his wife who does more than her bit to help Jarecki project such a sophisticated air of make believe (within the context of the Miller’s world) throughout the first act (there’s a look she conceals from the investigating detective as she gets into her limousine that is unleashed perfectly once in the safety of the car – a look that could be dismissed as nothing but means everything).

When it hits the fan, Jarecki doesn’t miss a beat either, and he keeps a steady hand on the proceedings. As such, the tension in Arbitrage feels very organic and brilliantly contained. There are a few moments here and there (mostly including Tim Roth’s ridiculously over-boiled detective) where the dialogue grates and a key scene in which Miller attempts to equate money with God (in a not too subtle commentary on modern money culture) partly misses the mark. But everywhere else the dialogue is sharp, polished, and wonderfully delivered. Jarecki shows a genuine talent in his physical set up too discretely phasing between cold and warm palettes and composing some striking shots along the way (there’s a conversation in a park which is like something out of a painting). This gives the dialogue-centric story a visually engaging vibe that will help justify the multiple revisits the story will more than likely prompt.

Where Arbitrage really stands up is in its conclusion. In a determined effort to insulate this genre within its traditional boundaries and embrace the inwardly dramatic climaxes of the best thrillers, a series of subtle face offs provide the stepping stones to a subtle but effective statement on life’s priorities and personal ambition. There are many things to admire in a film like this but best of all is that there are no traditional winners or losers in this story. Even if this does not facilitate a prescient commentary on the state of the modern financial world (though it probably does), it works because it’s just so damn refreshing. A class above.

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