Robert Miller is at the peak of his game. Owner of an extremely profitable hedge-fund he’s on the verge of selling for a fortune, while at the same time patriarch of a loving family co-managed by his wife Ellen (Sarandon). However, the audience soon learns that what Robert is really good at is deception. His business merely seems to be booming, the ‘trappings and the suits’ of prosperity covering up a $400 million hole caused by a bad investment in a Russian copper mine. His marriage is only the surface of his private life, the depths being populated by French mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta), a young artist whose career he is propping up with his wealth. Gere’s presentation of Miller is of a man unflappable, cool and mesmerizing. He dazzles like a conjurer. His life is a trick played at our expense.
Everything begins to unravel for our amoral Bob when his irresponsibility extends to a late, and possibly drunk, drive upstate with his mistress to placate her for failing to keep yet another promise. When faced with the possibility of ruin should the truth come out about what happened on the road, Miller’s cowardice wins the day. NYPD detective Michael Bryer (an under-utilized Tim Roth) can smell the fear beneath his oily charisma a mile off and is determined that the rich should not be able to buy injustice. The stage is set for a cat and mouse thriller that keeps us involved mainly thanks to an offensively brilliant performance by Gere, who seems prepared to accept the audience’s hatred in return for a sickening authenticity that we never doubt, giving us a slick glimpse into the dark top of finance.
Arbitrage takes us into the world of the super-elite, the 1% of the population of the west who have accrued the vast majority of the wealth created in the world since the Thatcher-Reagan neo-liberal economic experiment thirty years ago. The film luxuriates in its representation of the material conditions of this pampered bunch, with lingering close-ups of the expensive coffee containers pouring refreshments for Robert Miller in his private jet, and a relentless parade of shots of the interiors of the various living spaces, restaurants and offices that this class inhabit as they plunder what remains from the people below them.
Making a film about these people in the wake of the financial crash is very a necessary, but also a very delicate operation. The essential point to get across of course is that (despite what some of them may think) they are only human like the rest of us, and consequently an audience must be given the opportunity to empathise with their emotions and troubles, despite the enormous inequalities in living standards, health outcomes, income and educational opportunity that they represent. Iris Murdoch said that true sympathy is one that extends even to the very rich. This notwithstanding, a film like this must be careful not to glamorise the lives of these people, both because doing so can force us to withhold our sympathy, and also because to do so would perpetuate the lie that money and the economic power that money brings is the most important aim in life. The virus-like spread of this lie has done enough damage to the world and its people already.
Arbitrage finds this balance and holds it quite well I think. There’s no denying the film’s overall attitude of contempt for hedge-fund manager Miller and his ilk, but that doesn’t stop Arbitrage from exploring some of the ways in which those with access to great wealth can become detached from the norms of social morality. Miller is shown to be something of a philanthropist and benefactor (he financially supports the son of his former driver), and as such the film shows how this gives him a sense of entitlement fuelled not just by money but also by his own idea of himself as a ‘good person’. When during the course of the film events present Miller with a chance to show his moral worth, he catastrophically and criminally fails to do so, opening up, gapingly, the possibility that perhaps the sense that he has of himself is utterly delusional, based on dollars, not deeds. There has been much written recently about the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality of the morality of business. This is the recognition that certain behaviours and tendencies which would be condemned and scorned in everyday life are lauded and regarded as the winning attributes of a successful businessman. Richard Gere captures this aspect of the billionaire businessman’s personality very well, oozing odious obnoxious arrogance with every glare.
A solid and sleek look in to the dark top of finance, Arbitrage is a welcome contribution to the collection of post-crisis examinations of the corporate world exemplified by last year’s Margin Call. Restrained and convincing, the film rightly allows us to judge its characters by their actions and not by their words. Which is, of course, as it should be.