Too Big to Fail, by David Bax
This being the beginning of Oscar season and with stars like Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon dressed in fancy clothes in publicity skills and with a nebulous 50-cent word for a title, one could be forgiven for assuming that Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage is a dry prestige piece. Luckily for audiences, that’s not the case. Though it’s replete with nuance in both its depiction of human nature and its examination of its themes, the film is really a razor-sharp crime thriller of the white collar variety.
Gere plays Robert Miller, the billionaire founder and CEO of a Manhattan investment firm. When we first meet him, he is in the process of selling his company and preparing for a well-earned retirement with his wife (Sarandon) and ensuring the continued well-being and comfort of his two grown children (Brit Marling and Austin Lysy). He’s rushing home from an out-of-town meeting for his 60th birthday party where he gives a convincing – even winning – toast about the importance of family. After that, Jarecki, both as screenwriter and director, begins the task of revealing layer by layer the moral sickness of a man who has spent the majority of his life dealing with both people and money as if they are abstracts. Not only has his integrity become compromised but he is also avoiding detection and prosecution for at least two major crimes, one of them inscrutable and financial and one of them far more immediate.
Despite its taking place on the opposite end of the country and among a much more upper-crust milieu, Arbitrage is consistently reminiscent of the FX series The Shield. Like that show did, Jarecki puts us in a compromised moral situation in which we find ourselves hoping for a bad guy to get away with his crimes because his capture would have devastating fallout for others who are less guilty. The Shield’s Vic Mackey had his wife and autistic son as well as the relative simpletons he cajoled into following his illicit plans. Arbitrage’s Miller has a family of his own. But he also has countless people in his employ, all of whom could be out of work if he’s caught. As he says to his daughter in one of the film’s crucial scenes, “Everyone works for me.”
Also as in The Shield, the obstacles to escape keep popping up in front of Miller, multiplying his stress. Jarecki makes the audience feel the same effect by expertly pacing things so that the next reveal is always a surprise. Furthermore, he manages to do so without making the film feel episodic or that its cadence is dictated by its twists. Rather, he keeps pushing the film forward at a restless but smooth, ever-increasing pace. Like Miller, the film is so determinedly moving forward that you almost pass by the story’s resolution before you realize you’ve done so.
Brilliant cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, who has worked repeatedly with such luminaries as François Ozon and Olivier Assayas, brings a subtle and beautiful warmth to the film. He makes such unfamiliar settings as the back of a limousine, an Upper East Side penthouse or even a private jet feel safe and inviting, the way they would to our lead character. Meanwhile, locations like the hall of a courthouse or a Harlem apartment look crowded and uncomfortable.
As major a screen presence as Richard Gere can often be, he has nevertheless always had a tendency to underplay. That trait serves him well here, befitting a man who has learned through decades of negotiations how to keep a placid demeanor no matter the situation. Sarandon, though in a much smaller role, is perfect as the woman who is accustomed to being underestimated and uses that to her advantage. Tim Roth is Detective Bryer, the man investigating just one of Miller’s infractions, and he is delightful. Though one could accuse him of chewing the scenery, do keep in mind that the film is presented in Miller’s point of view, from which Bryer’s lower class vulgarity would likely seem exaggerated.
On the surface, the film’s themes are obvious. The more wealthy a person is, the more difficult it is to catch them for crimes either base or esoteric. Beyond that, however, there’s more. When dealing with someone who has as much power as Miller or his real world counterparts, the desire to prosecute becomes more dubious. After the financial collapse of 2008, there were certainly banking institutions who deserved to pay for their negligence. Instead, they got bailed out because their downfall would mean the same for so many more innocent people. Jarecki looks at the same concept from a more focused and human perspective.
In many ways, Arbitrage is the awards contender it may have first appeared to be. It is deep and meaningful and one of the most intelligent movies of the year. Yet that’s not why you should go see it. You should bring a date to it and see a thriller that is just good, smart fun.