If there is one regrettable tendency of movies that are made today, it is that so many of them settle for characters which are made up of less than fully-realized personalities. It is true, of course, that the main intent of any given commercial film is to simply earn money rather than create memorable characters, but even many independently produced films tend to avoid genuine character development in favor of directorial style. However, there are exceptions – such as the new film Arbitrage, written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, which – while perhaps not reaching the very greatest heights that a movie can reach – proves itself to be an exceptional character study.
Richard Gere stars as Richard Miller, a hedge fund magnate living the high life with a big family, tremendous enterprise, and mistress on the side. Unfortunately, this apparently ideal world has begun to wear him down, with the constant succession of secrets which dominate his business and private lives trapping him under the heaviest of burdens until one night, while driving upstate with his mistress, Miller drifts to sleep at the wheel, crashes the car, and kills his companion. He runs from the scene, and for the remainder of the picture struggles to keep his involvement in the woman’s death under wraps as he works to oversee the crucial selling of his trading business to another corporation.
Gere turns out a very good, appropriately dramatic performance, immersing himself into the corrupted mind of Richard Miller without ever distancing himself from the character, as is at times wont to happen due to an actor’s sense of moral distaste towards their character’s actions. Susan Sarandon also provides good work in what bits of this movie she shows up for, depicting Richard’s wife with a quieted aura of acceptance and undisclosed sadness. Brit Marling also does a fine job as Miller’s business partner/daughter; Tim Roth is good as a not-quite scrupulous detective; and Nate Parker plays Richard’s conflicted, “from-the-other-side-of-the-tracks” alibi with a sense of defensiveness and vulnerability.
But what I appreciate most about this movie is the complete honesty of its characters; it is rare for even well-developed characters in movies to remain true to themselves, without ever varying the course of their actions to fit with the perceptions of the audience. By this I mean that quite often, a writer will force a primary character to eventually stumble upon a moral epiphany where they suddenly shout out, “How can I possibly go on living my life this way?” This is often a revelation that is well-received by an audience that can see the flaws in a character’s ways, but it may not always be within the character’s nature to make such a dramatic revelation as to the course of their existence. In the case of Arbitrage, writer Nicholas Jarecki knows his characters’ limits; there is no moral pay-off, no revelation – the movie simply ends (quite abruptly, actually), and leaves one with the strikingly accurate notion that this is the way our protagonist is – and he isn’t going to change.
Even while I doubt that the Wall Street protests had begun at the point that this film’s script was written, Arbitrage seems to unquestionably be a movie about the “one-percent” – that is, the scant few people in this country whose fortunes are vast, and whose morals are thin. The film’s final scene at an elitists’ banquet – set up to honor the charitable organization of our good friend Robert Miller – is sublimely provocative, and implicative of this theme for how the camera pans across a sea of anonymous tuxedos and evening gowns, eventually centering on Mr. and Mrs. Miller – as if to say that every single person in that room are joined with the Millers in a world defined by guilt, deceptiveness, and convoluted moralities. Indeed, the world of Arbitrage is a world which is defined by money, a fact that this movie makes the truly wise decision of depicting as no more than that – a simple fact.