In the wake of the global financial crisis of recent years, the rise of the Occupy movement, and high-profile fraudsters like Bernie Madoff, who bilked investors out of billions of dollars, has come the need of fiction to better represent the reality that today's audiences are faced with, and writer-director Nicholas Jarecki aims to do just that with 'Arbitrage.'
It's very near the end of 2012; so, unless you're watching 'The Expendables 2,' gone are the days when the bad guy was some vaguely Eastern European troublemaker with a nuclear weapon, or some other relic of the Cold War, bent on the destruction of America. No, an inspired-by-the-times kind of film like 'Arbitrage' sees today's villains as the unscrupulous ones working on Wall Street, or otherwise recklessly playing with huge sums of money: investment bankers, stockbrokers, hedge fund managers – the callous one percent, basically. Given the breadth of its impact, the financial crisis and its origins have recently become almost a subgenre unto itself, what with features like 'Margin Call' and the HBO television movie 'Too Big to Fail,' seeking to examine how the crisis came about.
And in Jarecki's tale of a wealthy and successful venture capitalist in the midst of dual crises, the filmmaker seeks to subtly examine the goings on behind the curtain of morality for those whose entire life is just one clever negotiation after the next. Richard Gere plays Robert Miller, the aforementioned venture capitalist, whose attempt to sell his company is nearly undone by nothing short of a case of involuntary manslaughter. Adding to the tension is the fact that Miller has been operating his company fraudulently for quite some time, and the hundreds of millions of dollars of other people's money he's been playing with has mostly vanished, due to some unfortunate circumstances beyond his control. To cover this up, Miller's cooked his books as best he can, borrowed from an increasingly impatient colleague and is waiting on an audit to clear his company's sale that will wipe out all his wrong-doing, but may wind up fracturing the relationship he has with his daughter/partner, Brooke – played by 'Sound of My Voice' actor and co-writer, Brit Marling.
The plot unfolds during what are intended to be the last and most important days of Miller's company, and, therefore his legacy, his livelihood and the future of his family are at stake. But the legacy is false; Miller's infidelities and various shady financial practices gradually threaten to become known, and undo all of his machinations. At one point, Miller weighs his options only to realize that while the accidental death he was involved with will carry the lesser sentence, the notoriety and scandal emanating from it would completely unravel the sale of his company – thereby exposing the falsehoods being covered up there. The foundation of the film's tension is split equally between the police detective played by Tim Roth, who suspects Miller of playing some part in the death of an art dealer, and the seemingly endless back-and-forth between the Miller's company and the intended purchaser.
'Arbitrage' works largely by being such a tight, compact story that, despite a portion of its subject matter being perceived as dry to some, the plot speeds by at a breakneck pace. It's only later that the film's subtleties and larger implications begin to come into focus. Much of the narrative plays out like the other side of an episode of 'Law & Order,' jumping from one confrontational conversation to the next, each hinging on one character's perception of the other, which is then used to out-negotiate their adversary and procure a victory – which, in this case, is often about much more than just money. But that's how Jarecki's characters – Robert Miller, in particular – perceive their problems: There's no predicament for which money is not the solution. The only question is how much is it going to cost. And in Jarecki's screenplay, this is the biggest indictment made against those who wield great power and influence simply due to their wealth. Whether he's dealing with his wife – played wonderfully here by Susan Sarandon – a business rival, the police, or even, most egregiously, the down-on-his-luck son of a former associate, to Miller, it's all just one simple negotiation after another.
To his credit, Jarecki makes excellent use of his cast; Gere, despite playing a Madoff-esque character, pulls off the unexpected by actually making the audience connect with, and feel sympathy for a guy who has begun to see his world unravel, after making moral compromise after moral compromise. Meanwhile Susan Sarandon manages to do great things with what little screen time she's given, particularly when dealing with the potential fallout of her husband's situation. Additionally, Roth is rather compelling as the police detective who has more in common with Robert Miller than he'd probably like to admit. Altogether, the parts add up to quite a compelling whole – one thing 'Arbitrage' will not leave you feeling is boredom.
Still, despite the sense that Jarecki is hinting at a bigger picture, it comes off as being a little too concealed behind the house-of-cards situation Gere's character is in. The consequence of Miller so convincingly micromanaging several various, interconnected threads, prior to them becoming catastrophic and ruinous, has the accidental side effect of compartmentalizing the conflict. At once it manages to create an intriguing character in Gere's Robert Miller – a man who has never met a person he cannot manipulate – but it also, perhaps unintentionally, renders the film something of a paint-by-numbers thriller, in which the characters, as completely fleshed-out as they all seem to be, offer little in the way of surprise or genuine intrigue.
'Arbitrage' is a compelling little thriller that might be too neat and tidy for its own good, but it is chock full of excellent performances and certainly provides a glimpse at what an interesting writer-director Jarecki will become as his filmography increases.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Arbitrage' comes as a single Blu-ray disc from Lionsgate films, in a flimsy eco-keep case. Like most Lionsgate releases, there are quite a few previews for other releases prior to reaching the top menu, which can be skipped individually, but, frustratingly, you cannot jump right to the top menu.
'Arbitrage' was likely on the lower end of the budgetary scale, but you wouldn't know it to look at the film. Jarecki and his cinematographer, Yorkic Le Saux, have given the picture a sharp, detailed look that manages to weave in elements of the cold, steely atmosphere of the New York financial district, with the warmer, more inviting tones of Robert Miller's sumptuous home.
The picture is very good all around, with a real sense of clarity, depth, and the unmistakable sense of actually being in New York City. It's also a testament to Jarecki and Le Saux's eye that the image can look as good as it does in such confined spaces like Miller's private jet, or the luxurious car he's continuously being chauffeured around in. Much of that has to do with how much fine detail is present in the actor's faces, and the textures of their environment – which tend to look quite good in nearly every scene. The attention to detail also acts as a tool in identifying just how appropriate all the character's costumes and make-up were, as the difference between Tim Roth's character's wardrobe and Gere's is rather drastic.
As mentioned above, color plays a unique role in the film, and the image quality here manages to enhance that to some degree. The cold, hard lines and blue hues applied to the financial district look great and are represented well, while other environments manage to have a similar tone, and shift their color palette to better suit the feel of the scene, or its primary characters. To that end, it's necessary that the images' black and white levels are properly balanced, and, thankfully, they both look great here. A good portion of the film's set up takes place at night, and there's never an image that's lacking detail, or experiencing poor shadow delineation.
As you might have guessed, contrast is also high throughout, which checks yet another important aspect off the list. For those checking the film out for the first time, this Blu-ray will not disappoint.
The film comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that makes great use of the dialogue, score and occasional sound effect to offer a very immersive experience that's obviously light on heavy use of surround sound, or LFE, but quite convincing in tackling other issues like ambient noise.
As such, the mix makes good use of things like the din of a busy office – phones ring, papers are rustled and other conversations can all but be overheard through the rear channel, and sometime front speakers. For the most part, this is a dialogue-centric film, which requires the mix to be able to present every character's lines in the most pristine manner possible, and, thankfully, it manages to do so with ease.
One of the best aspects of this mix is the way it balances out the dialogue with the atmospheric effects and film's score. Normally, there is a noticeable variation in the level when a dramatic scene is suddenly more dramatic, or harrowing, which can often times leave the viewer feeling the need to take the volume down a notch (unless you’re my neighbor, then you turn it up). Here, though, the mix is almost always on an even keel, keeping the score in synch with the dialogue and other sound effects.
This is an effective mix that works to play up the strengths of the film, rather than over doing it on the score to create more dramatic tension, or more forcefully direct the audience into an emotion.
Most people have likely felt the effects of the economic crunch in one form or another, and seeing aspects of it on film may not be the way most audiences would like to spend their time escaping from the real world. Thankfully, 'Arbitrage' works as both a reminder of recent events, but also as a competent, if not overly compact, thriller. Obviously, the impressive cast will be something of a draw for most viewers, and all of the actors give excellent performances, with Gere offering some of his best work in recent memory. Jarecki tackles some intriguing concepts in his screenplay, and does it while fleshing out several interesting, if occasionally unsurprising characters. Chances are, after the success of this film, we'll be seeing more of this young director down the road. Combining a competent thriller with excellent picture and sound makes for a very nice Blu-ray that definitely comes recommended.