The World is Cold: Shades of Crooked Ireland Surface in Arbitrage
“When I was a kid my favourite teacher was Mr. James. Mr. James said: ‘World events all revolve around five things: M-O-N-E-Y.’”
So speaks financier Robert Miller at the opening of the excellent Arbitrage. And we know right from there, and when we see who is playing him, that this will be about a man who lives for money. Richard Gere might as well be playing an older version of his character from Pretty Woman, but this is a million miles away from that soft-centred movie.
I have to be honest and say that I needed to look up what the title word actually means. It seems that it is the ‘simultaneous purchase and sale of an asset in order to profit from a difference in the price.’ Have you got that? Actually, there’s a lot more but that was enough for me.
It’s a little strange to be watching this in the week that one of our dodgy characters in Ireland finally went to jail. Sean Quinn was sentenced to a whole nine weeks for contempt of court as he and his family continue to put two fingers up to the Law. Of course our crooked bankers continue to stay at large and—let’s be honest—with the mad way that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor in this country, they are likely to stay that way for a long time, perhaps forever. Quinn, who didn’t have a problem gambling with other people’s money and who yet feels completely picked on could do with listening to another quote from Robert Miller: “The competition for this limited amount of dollars can make the best of us manic.”
Wise words, but it’s a pity that Miller hasn’t paid a bit more attention to them. Within ten minutes the audience knows that his apparently perfect life—perfect family, perfect house, perfect private jet—is standing on eggshells due to his greed. And to get himself out of the mess that he has created is having to sell his company, but first fraudulently moving money in order to get through an audit. Oh boy, this is all so familiar. Isn’t that the stunt that the now disgraced Sean FitzPatrick of Anglo Irish Bank was pulling with the notorious ‘Fingers’ Fingleton? (Neither of them in jail yet or likely to be, etc.) And just as an aside: surely only a country as insane as Ireland would ever trust a guy with a nickname like ’Fingers’. Jesus wept.
“Do you think that money is going to fix this?” “What else is there?”
His very able daughter Brooke (beautifully played by Brit Marling), who works for him is beginning to get suspicious, not just because he has become surprisingly lyrical about family life during his sixtieth birthday party. When he indicates that he would like to spend more time with them outside of the office she replies: “I’m just trying to imagine what we would do.” Which tells you quite a bit about the perfect family, really. His wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) who is devoted to charitable works is also a bit put out that he can’t seem to come up with ‘only two million’ for an ordinary gift. Yep, looking at this scene once again had me thinking of good old Quinn and the mere €100,000 cake that he had made and flown from New York for his daughter’s wedding. Well, Irish cream and eggs wouldn’t be good enough, would they? Anyway, it was charged to his company so that was all right then.
On top of all this Miller has a coke-snorting mistress who is getting a bit demanding in the commitment department and…oh, you get the idea. This man, far from living the fabulous life that we see at the beginning, is actually living one that very closely resembles Hell. And it’s all of his own making.
It’s a testimony therefore to Gere’s acting (in my opinion his finest performance) that he actually made me sympathise. After all, as we gradually learn, this is a man who is also capable of acts of real kindness. Believe it or not, I felt for the guy when he was almost crawling to the friend who had loaned him the money and couldn’t help but flash back to another begging scene from years ago, when Gere played the American Gigolo.
Tim Roth turns up in fine form as the tenacious New York cop Michael Bryer, a man with such a hatred of seeing rich crooks getting away with it that he is willing to play hard and fast with the truth in order to nail his man. Unfortunately this isn’t good news for the young black man, Jimmy Grant, who has unwittingly become a key figure in Miller’s increasingly desperate attempts to cover things up. Played with a hard-edged pathos by Nate Parker, Jimmy is for me the soul and the conscience of the movie. “What’s baffling for me is why you’d want to put your family’s future in this kid’s hands”, Miller’s lawyer wonders. To which Miller can only reply quietly: “He’s not like us.”
Indeed he’s not and is in fact one of the few truly innocent people in the film.
For a while I wondered what the hell Susan Sarandon is doing in what at first seems a lightweight part for her; but that is answered close to the film’s end in a very powerful confrontation with her faithless husband.
There are a lot of unanswered moral questions here that you will have to make your own mind up on. After all, you could argue that the Miller family are doing a lot of good with their money—and that’s something that Quinn’s supporters seem to believe as well—but does the end ever justify the means? Different people will see the same film and draw their own conclusions.
Arbitrage is written and directed by Nicholas Jareki in what is his first attempt at a feature and a great debut this is. I really hope that it finds an audience. Apart from a look into that murky world of Big Money it is also a damned good thriller. And wouldn’t I just love to sit Sean Quinn, Seanie Fitzpatrick, ‘Fingers’ Fingleton and the rest of the bloody chancers down and force feed it to them, along with a much cheaper slice of cake than they’re used to; but then again, what could these characters ever possibly learn from it?