Film Review: Arbitrage

“I’m the patriarch. That’s my role, and I have to play it.” – Robert Miller

Arbitrage (a lawyer has informed me that it rhymes with “entourage”, not “Anchorage” like I originally pronounced it) pulled a fast one on me! Twice! Not a lot of films do that to me anymore, I gotta give it kudos.

First, based on the back of the box I assumed it was going to be “macro economic events seen through a microcosm of characters” a la Margin Call (the film featured in the previews that interested me the most, though Winter’s Bone looked good too), but with the exception of one confrontation between the main character and his daughter in Central Park, that wasn’t what this film was about at all. I would summarize its content as “how a smart, rich, True Neutral covers up a crime”.

(For those among my reader base who are not familiar with the term “True Neutral”, I’m lifting it from Dungeons&Dragons. It refers to one of nine potential ethical alignments for characters in that game. It’s a two-axis system of morality, one axis covers how a character feels about laws and social codes, the other axis covers how that character feels about altruism. In this film, Robert Miller is a True Neutral, someone who picks and chooses which social codes to follow and also displays both altruistic and selfish tendencies. His daughter, Brooke, is Lawful Good. His wife, played stunningly by Susan Sarandon, is Neutral Good. His driver, Grant, is Chaotic Good. Watching these characters tick through tough moral choices based on their alignments was half the fun of this movie.)

Second, the film ends at a point in the storyline where I was completely not expecting it to end. This is the first film I’ve seen in ages where I actually wanted it to keep going another twenty minutes, so many movies take for-freaking-EVER to end and this was definitely not one of them, I was on the edge of my seat until the very end. But looking back on it, I can understand why the writer ended it when they did. The way the characters had been set up, everything that needed to be said had been said. The dominoes were all set up in perfect alignment, there’s no reason the audience should be given the emotional schadenfreude of watching them fall when the entire point of the film is the tension. Well played, Arbitrage. Well played.


Sometimes it's possible to understand your mate a little too well.
Sometimes it’s possible to understand your mate a little too well.

Arbitrage is a film that lives and dies by its characters. The plot’s not especially complicated, there was really only one twist I didn’t expect – but the main reason I didn’t expect it was, I thought my understanding of the moral position of the police investigator was complete and then the film proved that it was entirely incomplete. Basically, if you don’t enjoy watching well-fleshed-out characters wading hip-deep through murky moral territory, this film is not going to be compelling for you. That’s something I really dig, so it was compelling for me. Who really has the moral high ground here? On the surface, it appears that Brooke does, but is that only because she is ignorant and naive? She may not have been confronted with very many tough moral choices in her life. Her father has worked very hard to put her in a position where she has the luxury of taking the high road, and one of the reasons I didn’t want the film to end where it did was, I wanted to see what she would do when confronted with the knowledge of her father’s corruption. Would she continue to take the high road once she realized who’d been footing the bill for this particular luxury good for the length of her entire life, when in order to take it she would have to give up something she valued dearly? From the way the dominoes were set up, my hypothesis is that she would choose to take the low road. This is certainly hinted at by her public praise of her father at the gala that is the film’s final scene, but a hint is not a certainty. Really, this character’s dramatic arc was arrested by the closing credits. Probably because she was not the film’s main character. This is Robert Miller’s story, and that story is told to completion.


Sarandon works her way through a pivotal scene for Ms. Miller.
Sarandon works her way through a pivotal scene for Ms. Miller.

Despite the fact that this is Robert Miller’s story and the film should really be considered a vehicle for Richard Gere, I’m going to take this paragraph to write a brief homage to Susan Sarandon. I would have watched this film if someone else had been cast in the role of Ms. Miller, but Sarandon’s involvement was definitely a selling point for me on the back of the box. Sarandon starred in some less than classy roles early in her career – Rocky Horror Picture Show anyone? Or how about that topless scene in Atlantic City? – but somewhere along the line her agent wised up and for decades now she’s been turning out quality work in great films like Thelma and Louise and The Banger Sisters (I may not have reviewed any on this blog yet but there is a part of me that will happily watch a chick flick, Steel Magnolias has a place on my shelf and I will not apologize to the gamer guy part of my reader base for that, not now and not ever). In this film, Sarandon plays an Empress, and I use that term in the tarot sense. A mature woman who understands the world and is willing to walk the low road so that others don’t have to, and keeps her regal bearing every step of the way. My heart just about broke for her character when her husband wheedles his mistress into taking an upstate vacation with him, a scant handful of scenes after Sarandon’s character tried to persuade him to do the same thing with her instead. I would have felt empathy for her character based on my feelings about infidelity alone, but when Sarandon plays her full hand of cards late in the movie and finally has a chance to talk about what SHE believes in, I really wanted to cheer. Sarandon made the character come alive. She’s got the gift. Watch her stuff. At this point in her career, she won’t steer you wrong.

As I said earlier in the review, I came to this movie assuming it was going to be like what I have come to understand Margin Call is like (I’ve never seen that one). Macroeconomic principles discussed in a microcosm. I therefore approached this movie with all the enthusiasm that a twelve-year-old can muster when required by a parent to eat peas. I know that understanding economics is good for me, just like a preteen’s understanding of health is developed enough to know that a body requires the nutrients in vegetables. I’ve been skirting the topic of economics to the maximum extent possible for most of my life, because I find it so dismal and depressing, and just like someone with a nutrient deficiency, it’s impacted my quality of life. So I resigned myself to eating my vegetables. I mean, with a title like Arbitrage, how fun could this movie really be? More fun than an Internet primer on hedge funds, surely… but not very fun.

Well the title’s a misnomer. If I were going to retitle this film, I would call it… The Patriarch. You see, “arbitrage” is a legal process, and if any of the characters were in arbitrage at any time in this story, it was never discussed. I got all the way through this film knowing how the word “arbitrage” is pronounced, but not really understanding what it meant, or how it differs from, say, “arbitration”. But if the film had been called The Patriarch, it would have been clear from the beginning that it was a character-driven movie. It also would have been clear that a modicum of intelligence is required to understand the film, because “patriarch” is a three syllable word (I do appreciate that aspect of the film’s real title), and that many of the problems encountered in the story stem from its reliance on patriarchal social systems (if you want to knock your brain for a loop while watching this one, pay attention to the significance of documents and documentation).

Whoever thought of this tagline for the movie got it wrong - power is Miller's motive, not his alibi.
Whoever thought of this tagline for the movie got it wrong – power is Miller’s motive, not his alibi.

I’m never going to be a billionaire. Watching Arbitrage confirmed both why this is true, and why I want it to be so. It’s a lot easier to stay on the high road, safe in the company of people I respect, when you’re not confronted with the choices someone like Robert Miller has to make every day. Frequently over the backs of the people he loves.Arbitrage will make you think and make you care. That’s a Hollywood rarity. I repeat: Well played, Arbitrage. Well played.

Overall rating: 5 out of 5.

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