We know who and what Robert Miller is the moment Richard Gere brings the character into the frame in the new thriller Arbitrage. He's a player, a business titan, a guy for whom the rules of the normal world don't apply.
He has a high-end hedge-fund firm, his prominent place in New York society, a socially prominent wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), and a daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), who will inherit the business someday.
He's also living the limo life on the back of shady bookkeeping, and he's keeping as his mistress an art dilettante, Julie (Laetitia Casta). Because he can.
Tom Wolfe famously labeled them "masters of the universe," the Wall Street gamblers whose sense of invincibility, entitlement and general recklessness brought the world's economy to ruin a few years back. But Gere's Miller becomes more than a "type" the moment he wrecks the car with the mistress in it and then runs away.
There's a crime to cover up as he struggles to keep the balls he's juggling in the air. But is he rich and cunning enough to avoid responsibility for a death he caused, for a company he brought to ruin?
First-time writer-director Nicholas Jarecki builds an elaborate, interconnected world for Miller to duck and weave through. His wife might wonder why the check for her favorite charity is late, but she hasn't discovered the affair, so pulling one over on her could be easy. The smart, business-minded daughter is another matter.
Then, there's the one person Miller calls for help in the dead of night. Nate Parker plays the outsider, the young black man with a police record whom Miller knows for reasons that become clear later.
With a cop (Tim Roth) sniffing around the charred remains of the mistress's car, discretion and a sneaky lawyer (Rockford Files vet Stuart Margolin) are paramount in Miller's mind.
Or they would be, if the Feds weren't investigating his company, if he weren't in desperate need of a merger/sale to redeem him, at least in a financial sense.
There's so much to keep track of that Jarecki robs his film of some of its punch, even as he slowly, carefully reveals his cards. But he cast this so perfectly that we can't help but be riveted.
Arbitrage sells this story, this concept. The mild-mannered and passive Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) becomes the voice of indignation as Miller's elaborate web starts to unravel.
The police investigation seems an afterthought. Still, Roth plays the heck out of his character: "He does not get to walk just because he's on CNBC."
Gere, ever-equivocating, lets us see the wheels turning in this wheeler-dealer. It's a fascinating performance that whips us between sympathy and appreciation for the crook who might get away with it, and fury that another member of the "1 percent" might escape punishment for all he's done to others.
Arbitrage doesn't preach, and it lives in a greater world of subtexts than the more overtly messaged, more narrowly focused and more entertaining Margin Call. But it's an engrossing, sober take on the culture's favorite villains in recession-era America.