Lies, suspense in “Arbitrage” at Martha’s Vineyard Film Center

Lies, suspense in “Arbitrage” at Martha’s Vineyard Film Center

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Welcome to the world of hedge fund trading in “Arbitrage,” a first-run thriller playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Thursday, Nov. 1, through Sunday, Nov. 4.

The term “arbitrage” involves the simultaneous trading of two assets to make money off a difference in their prices. It’s one component of the financial wheeling and dealing that sent the economy down the tubes in 2008.

In the movie “Arbitrage,” Richard Gere plays billionaire Robert Miller, who has gambled and lost on an arbitrage bet involving Russian securities he has leveraged with money he doesn’t have. The action starts with Miller heading home for a brief birthday celebration with the family. They include his lovely wife, Ellen, played with smooth assurance by Susan Sarandon, and his lovely daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), who plays a key role as chief financial officer of the family hedge fund business. It’s a set piece that the audience will understand, done persuasively enough that you will want to believe things are that good. Billionaires are like the rest of us, right?

After a warm-hearted speech about how much he loves his family and looks forward to spending more time with them after he sells his company, Robert leaves. Ostensibly he’s heading back to the office; in fact, he’s going to see his mistress, Julie.

That’s the first sign of a crack in the genteel façade of Mr. Miller as family man.

Not much time passes before Robert makes a fatal, but believably innocent mistake that threatens to bring his affluent world crashing down around him. In a desperate attempt to cover up a criminal act, he calls on a loyal family retainer to come get him out of the mess.

Hot as a bloodhound on the scent, Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), shows up soon after, and the Gordian knot of lies and deceit grows ever tighter.

The presence of veteran, confident actors like Mr. Gere and Ms. Sarandon goes a long way toward taking a basically conventional suspense plot and giving it the authenticity it needs to work. Robert and Ellen Miller say and do all the right things on the surface. He wins a tribute to his good works. She spends most of her time doing charity work. It’s the seamy, immoral underside of their apparently ideal life that makes for satisfying drama.

With the possible exception of daughter Brooke, all the primary characters in “Arbitrage” have dirty hands. Wife Ellen has known all along about the mistress, and she goes for the jugular at her first opportunity. Detective Bryer cuts a few corners in ways that only TV cops seem to get away with, and Robert, of course, reveals himself as a bigger liar and cheater than at first seemed possible.

As Sir Walter Scott (not Shakespeare) wrote in “Marmion,” “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” it’s a warning that more politicians and Wall Street types should take to heart. Nicholas Jarecki, a relative newcomer to filmmaking, tosses in a surprise ending, just to keep the audience on its toes.

The Film Center will also screen a family film, title to be announced, on Saturday, Nov. 3, and Sunday, Nov. 4 at 4 pm.

“Arbitrage,” Thursday, Nov. 1 through Sunday, Nov. 5, 7:30 pm, M.V. Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. $10; $7 for M.V. Film Society members. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.

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