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Rating: ★★★★☆

Perhaps the most flustering thing about writer-director Nicholas Jarecki’s scintillating debut is that this could be a ‘based on a true story’. The story is fiction but the characters, situations, moral ambiguities, and toxic world of Wall Street and Corporate America seem very bluntly true. It also features the best performance to date from Richard Gere.

Robert Miller is the CEO of a multi billion capital company. On the surface his life is the epitome of the American dream: a respected billionaire, a positive philanthropist and beloved father and husband. His company even employs his son and daughter (Brit Marling) in high executive positions. Miller however has many plates spinning that threaten to bring his world to a devastating crash. He is desperately trying to sell off his company to hide his fraudulent activities and prevent a car accident involving his mistress from sending him to jail and even worse – financial ruin.

Gere’s performance is the stuff of Oscar nominations. His Golden Globe nod is a deserving if not a conciliation prize to the prestige of the Academy. Miller is a fascinating character – complex, morally dubious, conniving and brilliant. Watching Miller conduct business with cunning guile in one particular scene emphasises his success and immense power. Gere also gives Miller a more sensitive and romantic side especially in scenes with his French mistress (Laetitia Casta) that contradicts his ruthless business villainy. Miller is effectively a junkie to the merciless wealth and power of Corporate America.

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The rest of the cast is superb. Susan Sarandon is reliable as ever as Miller’s wife who is not just a passive billionaire’s spouse. Brit Marling gives a breakout performance as Miller’s daughter Brooke who suspects her father’s fraudulent dealing. Marling (soon to be seen in Sundance darling The East) shares the film’s best scene with Gere in which she realises she is only an ‘employee’ in the eyes of her father. Tim Roth also gives a memorable supporting turn (by seemingly channelling Robert De Niro) as a beat cop who badly wants to pin Miller’s scalp to the wall and win one for the little guy. Roth’s detective is fatigued and weary of white collar criminals and goes to extreme lengths to catch his prey.

Arbitrage is set in a post-crash Wall Street. Miller is a man insulated from the higher echelons of society. He calls on a young black man, Jimmy (Nate Parker) to bail him out of a jam which highlights the still existing racial and social divides in modern post-Obama America. Parker imbues Jimmy with heart, loyalty and charm. His steely loyalty and misguided devotion to Miller gives their relationship a father-son dynamic non existent between Miller and his own son.

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Jarecki is certainly a talent to watch. His debut is a fascinating character study of a man with the perception of wielding incredible power yet tangibly owning none of it. Jarecki also does not judge his central character. He makes the audience route for the ‘hero’ to escape from the jaws of destruction despite his moral bankruptcy. Audiences will find themselves routing for their protagonist despite being repulsed at his actions and scrupulousness. This hero, in his most honest exchange, describes money as ‘God’. He worships at the altar of capitalism – and his God has no plans on smiting him just yet.

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This article was first posted on February 27, 2013