Why do we let them get away with murder?


Rating ArbitrageArbitrageArbitrageArbitrage

Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki. Starring Richard Gere, Tim Roth, Susan Sarandon, Monica Raymund, William Friedkin, Laetitia Casta, Evelina Oboza, Josh Pais, Chris Eigeman, Stuart Margolin, Nate Parker, Jennifer Butler, Larry Pine, Austin Lysy, Curtiss Cook, Gabrielle Lazure, William Henderson White, Brit Marling, Shawn Elliott, Sophie Curtis.

Arbitrage (n): the simultaneous purchase and sale of the same securities, commodities, or foreign exchange in different markets to profit from unequal prices.

Those traders on Wall Street, they get away with murder. Quite literally, in director Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage. It stars Richard Gere as hedge fund manager Robert Miller, who has built up an empire over the years, brought great wealth to his family through morally dubious methods, and now tries to escape the clutches of the law. 

But will he get away with it? That’s one of the great things about this movie, which puts its cards on the table and asks us to take sides. It’s almost akin to Hitchcock’s Psycho, which charts how Norman Bates disposes of a body to cover up a murder; we don’t exactly want him to get away with it, but the scenario is just as suspenseful regardless of whose side we’re on.

Miller’s crime – apart from the financial wheeling-dealings he has made his name in – is falling asleep at the wheel, resulting in a fatal car crash involving the death of his passenger and mistress (Laetitia Casta). Instead of calling for help, Miller makes a different call – one the removes any trace of his presence from the crime scene. 

As streetwise New York detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) puts the pieces of the accident together, however, he finds evidence that points in Miller’s direction. Bryer just knows Miller is guilty, but he lacks sufficient evidence to prove it. 

We have every reason to side with Bryer here – a tough, no-nonsense detective who simply wants to see justice done – and every reason to side against Gere’s manipulative Wall Street scoundrel, but…well, why isn’t this easier? Why are we sympathizing with this guy?

I’ll tell you why: because Richard Gere is genuinely charismatic and likable, and offers up a terrific performance; the better the portrayal of the villain, the more we like them, regardless of what they’ve done (no one illustrated this better than Ben Kingsley in Polanski’s Death and the Maiden). And that’s exactly how Bernie Madoff and company got away with it in real life, too: by winning over their marks’ sympathies through charm and grace, defrauding them with a smile. 

A better comparison might be The Sopranos, though I daresay the American mafia doesn’t have as bad a rap as Wall Street in the current political climate. Miller’s wife (Susan Sarandon) has learned to live with her husband’s ethics in return for the fortune he has brought her, but his daughter (Brit Marling) begins to have doubts as she rises in her father’s company. 

Arbitrage is a taut, exciting, and – above all – classy Wall Street thriller that challenges our sympathies and paints a fascinating portrait of a man with questionable ethics. At its heart is a dominating performance by a perfectly-cast Richard Gere.

The movie represents the feature debut of director Nicholas Jarecki (who also wrote the screenplay), brother of documentary filmmakers Andrew (Capturing the Friedmans, All Good Things) and Eugene (Why We Fight, The Trials of Henry Kissinger). I don’t count a bad film between them.

Also opening this week: 

  • Excuse Me (showtimes | IMDb), a Danish comedy from director Henrik Ruben Genz. Screening in Danish with Czech subtitles.

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