Arbitrage (MA). Director: Nicholas Jarecki. Starring: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling. 107 minutes
'High finance, low ethics' was one reviewer's succinct summation of the plot of the new financial-world thriller Arbitrage. In fact 'distorted' or 'misaligned' ethics might be more appropriate.
In many ways its beleaguered antihero, hedge fund magnate Robert Miller (Gere) acts from a strong sense of obligation to others in his life; his family, employees and shareholders. But there are numerous other individuals who prove to be merely collateral damage, falling along the way in Robert's murky moral margins.
Robert has built an empire, that his adoring chip-off-the-block daughter Brooke (Marling) is set to assume when he retires. But unknown to Brooke or Robert's longsuffering 'good wife' Ellen (Sarandon), the empire is about to be sucked into the mire by a bad investment, leaving behind nothing but dead dreams and empty pockets.
He has a potential buyer lined up for the company. The trick will be to offload it as quickly as possible, before the purchaser realises that anything is amiss, and the price plummets. It will take some shady wheeling and dealing on Robert's part to prevent himself, his family, employees and shareholders from being left with nothing.
But Robert's practical obligations to those for whom he is immediately responsible usurp his human obligations to those who become pawns in his efforts to maintain an orderly facade. The situation is exacerbated when an accident — stemming from a personal indiscretion and tragic for someone who trusted him (to say more than that would be to ruin the biggest of the film's many plot twists) — pushes him to take extreme measures.
Writer-director Jarecki's debut feature film is a thriller of great composure, sharply topical in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, and anchored by an impeccably controlled performance by Gere, who easily synchronises the various aspects of Robert's character: the warm family man, calculating businessman, cunning criminal.
Robert is clearly the villain of the piece, yet we are engrossed by his ordeal, and eager to know whether he will get away with it. We can worry later about the justice or otherwise of the outcome. In fact there are enough nuances to Jarecki's screenplay and Gere's performance that this question could be debated at length.
The character and his plight bear comparison to that of Walter White, of television's Breaking Bad. Walt (Bryan Cranston) is a former high school chemistry teacher who, after a diagnosis of terminal cancer, turns to cooking methamphetamine as a way to earn enough money to provide for his family once he has died.
Like Walt, Robert compromises his ethics for the sake of his family because he thinks he is on borrowed time. But like Walt, he learns that compromise breeds corruption, and that once ethics have become misaligned, 'being bad in order to achieve good' leaves the door open to also serving pride and self-interest.
The question Robert must ultimately answer is whether he is willing to sacrifice his own wellbeing for the sake of others', or if self-interest will prevail. Only if it is the former can he make any true claim to ethics.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.