Arbitrage, Susan Sarandon, Richard Gere

Susan Sarandon came to protest Gov. Scott Walker's assault on collective bargaining rights in 2011. 

Honestly, I had forgotten what a great actor Richard Gere was. He’s appeared in a few movies here and there over the last decade (“Bee Season,” “Shall We Dance,” straight-to-Netflix films like “The Double”) that came and went without much notice.

But with the thriller “Arbitrage,” I was immediately reminded of what a fierce actor he can be. First-time writer and director Nicholas Jarecki has given him a juicy, complex character in billionaire financier Robert Miller, and Gere just runs with it. I’m not one to make Oscar predictions, but how do you see this film and not give him front-runner status during award season?

On the surface, Miller is the American capitalist success story — a very rich man who has wheeled and dealed his way to the top, given generously to charity, has a loving family (including Susan Sarandon as his wife and Brit Marling of “Another Earth” as his daughter and heir to the throne.) The film opens with a 60th birthday party for Robert, in which he praises his family as his “best work.”

And then he cuts out of the celebration to go see his mistress (Laetitia Casta), and we realize that the solid front Miller presents isn’t so solid. Underneath the Brioni suits, he’s over-leveraged in almost every aspect of his life, and the bills are coming due. He’s had to borrow hundreds of millions to cover a bad investment on his company’s books so he doesn’t go bankrupt, and can only pay it back if he can sell his company without revealing how deep in debt he is. In other words, he’s a fraud.

But the deal won’t close, and his creditors are ready to blow the whistle on his cooked books. And then something else happens, something personal. If word got out, it would scuttle the sale. So Miller goes to desperate measures to cover it up.

“Arbitrage” is a morality play, like “Margin Call,” about the raging excesses of Wall Street, of those financial titans who believe that not only are their companies too big to fail, so are they. But it’s also a taut noir thriller about a guilty man trying to stay undiscovered. And it is a fascinating character study of an inherently selfish man who, underneath his exterior, is a predator.

Jarecki expertly keeps all these elements in play while delivering a film that’s both conventionally entertaining and a little unsettling. He really plays with the audience’s loyalties — we know we should hate Miller’s character, but we can’t help but root for him.

Much of that empathy comes from Gere’s terrific performance. Even though the subject matter is quite dark at times, Gere brings such a ferocious joy to the part. Miller is a silver-maned wolf in his natural habitat, never happier than when he’s out-negotiating a rival or, in a brilliant monologue, rhapsodizing about a lucrative copper mine that was going to make him untold riches. “It was ... God,” he intones, half-believing it.

The film is expertly shot and beautifully written, and there’s not one character large or small that Jarecki doesn’t find his way inside of with the dialogue. The other lead actors are all good, and I delighted in seeing favorites from New York-based films pop up in small roles, like Stuart Margolin (Angel from the old “Rockford Files”) as Miller’s sage lawyer, or Whit Stillman favorite Chris Eigeman as Miller’s lieutenant.

But this is Gere’s show, and it’s fitting that the last shot of the film is him standing alone. You may or may not understand what “arbitrage” actually means by the end of “Arbitrage,” but you’ll know for sure that this is a career-best role for him.