Arbitrage (2012, Nicholas Jarecki)
The financial mogul as unstoppable supervillain was the great fact of the 2010s even years before one of them became the President of the United States. There was a time when collective bitterness over those who’d gotten away with murder via insider trading, subprime markets and banking felonies and passed the shame (and foreclosures) on to you, the average consumer, infected seemingly everybody — a common enemy we could agree on for once. For a straightforward cinematic reading of the disaster that loomed over the country beginning in 2007, you can turn to the documentary Inside Job, to J.C. Chandor’s respectable suspense mood piece Margin Call or to the righteous indignation of Adam McKay’s oddly gripping The Big Short. But for the micro treatment, for the Hitchcockian survey, we turn to a film that dares to turn the faceless evil into a breathing, disturbingly vivid flesh-and-blood characterization.
Arbitrage is the debut feature of writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, brother of documentarians Andrew and Eugene and son of Henry Jarecki, a patriarch of his own financial and philanthropic empire, which gives this film about a ruthless tycoon and phony family man the ring of almost uncomfortable truth. That said, the director mostly uses his experience in this largely unknown and inaccessible world — his knowledge of “how the other half lives,” so to speak — simply as a way to inject lived-in detail into a grander, timelier story than one built from his own experience. The unmistakable reference point, still just a two year-old story at the time the film was being written, is the Bernie Madoff scandal. The connections range from the timeline of intensifying dread and inevitability to the intricate involvement of immediate family to the sheer combination of suaveness and ineptitude driving the entire crazed affair.
It’s surprising that a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese hasn’t already made some insufferable power-infatuated picture about Madoff or a coded version of same, wherein his dual obligations to his own precarious yet meticulously cultivated scamming of an entire subset of the financial circuit (Madoff was once chairman of NASDAQ!) via glorified pyramid scheme and to his traditional, adoring family would be clearly intended as self-evidently interesting, as though the mere presence of contradiction were a version of insight, betting on the automatic fascination we collectively feel with anyone who got away with something so big for so long. We would come away knowing nothing more about Madoff than that he was an enigma, and a scapegoat (which is nearly inarguable, really; his primarily wealthy victims were among the very few figures in the ’07-’08 crisis who experienced some form of justice).
Jarecki’s tactic is far more interesting. Rather than positing his own very different but inescapably comparable version of Madoff as some Tod Browning horror figure, he presents the unfettered and ugly vision of base humanity with infinite resources. That is, a classic grifter with a touch of unnatural invincibility, but also a horrified smooth-talker, a nervous wreck, and a deeply determined champion of his own self-interest whose singular moral universe leaves no room for contemplation of a world or a logic outside of his bubble. The object of every day and every sleepless night is to further the illusions that keep him afloat, with no consequence worse than the loss of comfort and prestige. What’s intriguing is how well Jarecki establishes the sad baldness of the character’s system of deceit and his obvious status as an unmovable asshole while also identifying the frail humanness of his nature: the awful thing is how Arbitrage turns big lies into an accumulation of small ones, until we can almost imagine the hideous and fearsome decisions we ourselves would make, and even come dangerously close to rooting for an uncaring, belligerent man who is our natural enemy.
Jarecki casts Richard Gere as his Madoff burlesque, an outrageously successful and hotheaded hedge fund manager given the suspiciously generic name “Robert Miller.” Gere is more than ideal casting, for reasons that go beyond just his performance, which is effectively complicated and indeed is as good as he’s ever been in a movie. Never a prolific actor and hardly one to stretch himself, Gere’s made a career of embodying a squinting, gruff yuppie stereotype in the movies (Pretty Woman, Chicago, presumably Runaway Bride and Unfaithful) and in the press — his early career was defined by the iconic Herb Ritts photo in which he’s extended halfway out of a large swimming pool dealing with someone on the telephone while a mostly nude woman leaps into the water nearby. He’s more handsome and smug-looking in his sixties than he was as a heartthrob in Days of Heaven and An Officer and a Gentleman; somehow this and his procession of affairs, marriages and hotly contested divorces makes him the perfect embodiment of this charming snake in a wonderfully Brechtian sense. If you’re going to sell this sort of a character, the only comparable actor would be Tom Cruise, and he would still seem a bit too young to be so powerful, and too much of a sociopath for us to get wrapped up in his plight. Gere’s Miller, in the end, is vastly more dimensional and multifaceted an embodiment of this sort of character than the iconic interpretations of Michael Douglas or Leonardo DiCaprio.
In a fashion that recalls the much nicer heroes of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, Miller gets sent through the wringer via a whole series of practically insurmountable thriller scenarios; at the outset, his ridiculously perfect perfume-commercial life with a devoted wife (Susan Sarandon), a gifted daughter who serves as his chief accountant (the perpetually under-used Brit Marling, who clearly pushes Gere to a new level in their later scenes together) and a dumb son who gets paid buckets anyway (Austin Lysy, talked about more than seen) is disrupted first by a mistress (Laetitia Casta) who keeps bugging him with her tiresome “needs” and then by the hemming and hawing over the sale of his company to a fellow Wall Street asshole (Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, ingeniously cast as the type of guy who has a regular brunch table at a high-rise restaurant from which he conducts his daily wheeling and dealing), which is further complicated by the fact that a government audit is only passing muster because of a loan Miller’s secured to cover up a shortfall due to his own bad investments. Right in the middle of all this, he decides to take mistress Julie out to the country for a weekend fuck-and-run and gets her killed after falling asleep at the wheel, which then gets sloppy, lopsided tie-wearing detective Tim Roth on his trail through his unwitting getaway driver Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a deceased employee. Miller spends the rest of the film juggling all this along with what seems to be cracked rib, a nasty limp and a bleeding forehead from the car accident, and then his daughter discovers the holes in the financial records and confronts him.
It feels a bit like an inordinately difficult text adventure game in which the programmers constantly lob new problems and threats in your direction; but somehow, the film never feels busy or overstuffed and successfully presents and resolves its many story threads in under 110 minutes. It helps that all of the complexities and conundrums we encounter travel through Miller and confirm the movie’s basic thesis about him as a long-time monster for whom the chickens have finally come home to roost; but what helps even more is that nothing about Jarecki’s script is simple, despite its impressive elegance and clarity. Miller is a despicable character — Gere’s reading of the insane line “everyone works for me” teeters perfectly on the edge of hilarious and horrifying; and there’s no better defining of the brain worms of wealth than when he tries to pay off his worried accomplice Jimmy, who wonders why he thinks money will solve this problem, and he replies “what else is there?” — but he’s also complex and extremely believable (far more so than, for instance, the modern touchstone of the anti-hero, Walter White; more like his lawyer, Jimmy McGill, albeit far less amusing and lovable), and it’s presumably here that Jarecki’s personal experience with the High Street comes into play — there’s no falling back on stereotypes here. It would be very easy to write a protagonist who was simply a ruthless trash heap of a human, and objectively this one is, but what we have here is an almost Renoir-like treatment of the Madoff villain: he has his reasons, and in all honesty they’re not entirely alien to most of us. It’s perhaps a good thing that we are not being shown this fantasy of amoral capitalism without limitations or scruples in the years when all was going swimmingly for Miller, as with Jarecki’s skill level we could probably convince ourselves to find some comfort in that fantasy — apart from the fact, of course, that we was most likely as miserable then as he seems now.
Conversely, the engagingly skeezy cop played by Roth in his usual loud disarray has his heart completely in the right place, legally and ethically, and he’s a pretty good detective too — picking up instantly on the truth of the wrecked, burned-out car and the reality of Jimmy’s oddball pay-phone connection to the hedge fund world. But he’s also a distasteful boor who tosses around racial slurs and tries to throw an innocent kid under the bus strictly to “get at” the figure he rightfully sees as the enemy of the common good. It’s a provocatively thorny situation that requires dual parts of our moral selves to go to war: do the ends justify the means if the ends could genuinely help make a better world? (This is one sense in which a Third Man-like treatise on the ravages Big Banking inflicts upon the world might well have been handy; instead we get a strong scene of high-stakes betrayal in which daughter Brooke has it out with Miller in Central Park and the void at his center is exposed. He is proven incapable of admitting weakness or humility even to the ostensible reason he committed his crimes.)
Jarecki doesn’t really make an argument in either direction, and he does ensure that Miller gets his, at least on a personal level, when his wife pulls the rug out from under him in the film’s final minutes. But what the filmmaker does with his audience here is quite fascinating, and unusual — the entire film ends up serving as a depiction of our own ideological limits and imperfections. We take a strange kind of pleasure in Miller’s antics, which have actively caused every sort of misery up to and including death, and frequently put ourselves in his seat — and even get a bit of vicarious thrill from the comfort and respect he enjoys — the way that we sometimes root for Norman Bates or, hell, Marie Antoinette; but we also, from the comfort of our seats, get a charge out of his family turning his back on him in a manner that seems emotionally well-earned and deeply righteous, even though it seems that wife Ellen is simply planning on becoming Robert Miller II in his absence. Meanwhile, we are relieved when the deeply conflicted Jimmy is forced neither to turn on his “benefactor” (who is indeed using him, a cold fact he never does want to believe) nor to go to prison, and this redemption for one of the film’s few pure characters is a relief to us, even though it’s objectively the wrong way for things to go. Given the bare truth of the entire story without coming to know the involved parties and their conflicts of interest, it’s unlikely we would ever give these individual people so much of our thought and sympathy, including Jimmy, whose resistance to turning Miller in might then seem indefensible to us. In this sense, and in the strange context of a financial thriller informed very specifically by the 2008 crash, Jarecki has managed to illuminate extremely unlikely corners of human nature with empathy, and to shine that light from every conceivable direction. The result fully justifies the weighty ambiguity of the film’s conclusion.
This is being written on a week when the New York Times has reported extensively on Donald Trump’s tax returns from the period in which he was most famous as a yuppie master of “the Deal” and for all the extravagant weddings and magazine shoots that came as ancillary benefits. Like Miller in the film, his reputation preceded him but didn’t protect him from the brink of ruin; Trump was writing nonsense about wanting you to be rich while he could barely maintain his own flimsy house of cards. The distance from regular life wrought by his obscene wealth and, later, the illusion of extreme wealth was a ridiculous mind-over-matter concoction that would leave any sane person living in constant fear. Unfortunately the real-life villains are far less complex, interesting and human than the ones we get in the movies; and we also are not given the pleasures of watching them receive comeuppance or of enjoying our own collective redemption. This may be why, for Arbitrage, Jarecki chose as his subject not an arbiter of the default swap market or the housing bubble or the bank executives that let it all happen and got away unscathed but a sort of elevated Mr. Moneybags who primarily runs afoul of government investigations, angry lenders, disappointed family members and bad investments. There’s some of us in this guy even if it’s just because we didn’t do our homework a few times in middle school. But the real enemy is much more threatening, much more unstoppable, and far far duller — a gaping maw of black misery with no moral compass and no sense of purpose beyond the primordial urge to cultivate and hold power and invincibility at any cost. Trump isn’t afraid just like Alan Greenspan and Richard Fuld and their ilk weren’t, because he knows he’s got us hooked. Thank god for the fucking movies, right?