In the sleek financial-sector film noir Arbitrage, Richard Gere gets the role he has been suiting up for ever since he was first designer-dressed for a murder rap in American Gigolo.
Gere plays Robert Miller, a billionaire Wall Street investment executive who has the silken suaveness of a limo-bound shark: His hair is steely grey, his eyes small and dark, his demeanour utterly imperturbable, even when he is committing acts of high financial criminality.
Which is precisely what he is up to when we first meet him: Miller’s company is not only up for sale but up for federal audit, and he has illegally borrowed more than $400-million to cover the yawning numbers gap between what he is charging for his business and what it is really worth.
But the lender is getting nervous and wants his money back.
That leaves Miller to do what he can to keep the fraud hidden, his family in the dark, the Internal Revenue Service at bay and business functioning more or less as usual.
Judging by his air of chilled unflappability – this is a guy who can commit major financial fraud in one scene, go home for his 60th-birthday party the next and finish the evening with a tidy tryst at the mistress’s paid-for apartment – all of this would be more or less routine for Robert Miller.
But another event pours blood on the numbers and leaves Miller guilty of both white-collar criminality and asleep-at-the-wheel negligence. Now faced with certain disaster if word gets out, he shifts gears from calculated manipulation to cruel deliberation. The shark is out.
Unfolding with the same cool deliberation with which Miller conducts his business, personal affairs and crimes, Nicholas Jarecki’s movie requires that we follow this penthouse-dwelling urban predator, observe him closely and, in the process, become fully aware of just how morally, spiritually and even sociopathically bankrupt he really is.
Neither as steeped in number-crunching minutiae as the recent Margin Call nor as intellectually abstracted as Cosmopolis – both financial-vertigo fables featuring characters Robert Miller might share a bowl of blood with – Arbitrage keeps its focus, and our undivided attention on this magnetically ambiguous figure, the kind of guy who can ruin lives and make charitable donations in a single three-block ride.
While we may at first be charmed and seduced by Miller’s velvet veneer of charismatic entitlement – which is exactly why Gere, who replaced Al Pacino at the last minute, is so smartly cast – it’s only so that we may grow more uncomfortable with the man and his actions, not to mention our own fascination, as the lips are slowly pulled back and the gleaming teeth bared.
As many of the most memorable and darker thrillers have, Arbitrage plays with affinities in order to completely confuse the drawing of any clear lines between good and evil, criminal and executive, skilled pro and callous cad. It’s not only important dramatically that we have conflicting feelings about Miller, it also helps to make an essential point in an era when white-collar crime has supplanted old-school mob shenanigans as popular culture’s principal form of organized illegality.
Robert Miller never once thinks that what he is doing is wrong. He is the kind of person for whom wealth, money and power create their own moral and behavioural framework, exempting people like him not only from the rule of law, but also from feeling the kind of empathy that separates the sharks from the guppies.