Something of thematic resonance over the past year has been the growing tendency for filmmakers to address the plights of the 1%. Whether it is the real life narrative mined in The Queen of Versailles to the adventures of a billionaire caped crusader in The Dark Knight Rises, a narrative tendency has been to romanticize the amoral proclivities of some heinous bastards. David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis reached a delicate compromise in having the sharpness of his filmmaking prevent the audience from ever actually sympathizing (or adversely judge) its central bastard. With Nicholas Jarecki’s film, the picture demarcates its moral quandary into two separate narrative threads, where sympathy contracts and expands as Robert Miller (Richard Gere) interacts with various social classes.
The verbal acrobatics on display in Arbitrage is perhaps its most impressive feature. Whereas a recent film like J.C. Candor’s Margin Call took calculated break points to illustrate large capital concepts for the audience, Arbitrage simply proceeds. What we see on-screen is largely an effort on Jarecki’s part to convey smart people to the audience without sacrificing its deep-rooted sense of realism throughout. But beyond the picture’s overt verbosity, Jarecki subscribes to thriller tropes that convincingly work with his dialogue-driven screenplay. With a strong ensemble, highlighted by Richard Gere, and impressive supporting actors in Brit Marling and Tim Roth, Arbitrage has an impressive amount of moving parts that are kept in line.
Its precision unfortunately works against some of its more fundamental narrative detours – as Arbitrage addresses its central character’s roach-like ability to survive crisis after crisis, the rinse and repeat methodology of Jarecki’s direction begins to wear thin. This is compounded by Jarecki’s rather liberal editing and framing techniques. Whereas Jarecki is capable of keeping his actors in check along with his crisp dialogue, much of the visual imagery struggles to keep up.
Despite some of the technical issues I had with the film’s design, Arbitrage remains a feature remarkably grounded in contemporary culture while speaking volumes on the nature of greed. Perhaps the most logical extension to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (moreso than its sequel or Margin Call) Arbitrage has a central Gordon Gekko-esque character that complicates the image of greed in its relation to familial bonds. The ambiguity of Robert Miller’s character is one so compellingly rich, as it’s a character that spews rhetoric that contradicts his own actions. To see it in action both for and against his family, and to see how Miller values capital in the face of varying social classes, is one of the more compelling statements I’ve seen this year.