Wall Street’s Moral Downfall


How much can I take from this land of plenty?

Terrance Malick’s 1978 masterpiece, Days Of Heaven was famously shot in the “magic hour” between dusk and darkness. The tiniest things seemed most highlighted in the bewitching twilight; each individual seed at the end of a shock of wheat, streaks of grime across the faces of anonymous field hands and the subtlest expressions and movement seethed with jealousy, contempt, desire. The story comprises a relatively convoluted scheme explained through the heavily colloquial and vague voice-over of fifteen-year-old Linda Manz whose character is removed from the primary action of the film. The result is an intensely visual form of storytelling. The surreal details captured by the lens blend seamlessly with the actors’ faces. The dimness of the Texas plains at nightfall highlights their features in ways that work beyond the performers’ raw skills.

It is not mastery of craft that enables seventeen-year-old Richard Gere, starring for the first time, to create such a memorable performance, but rather the way his flawless, youthful prettiness absorbs and reflects moonlight and distant ambiance. Only the tip of sinister intention peeks out at us through the shadows like a pair of alligator eyes tracking its prey.

Gere, sixty-three at the release of last year’s Arbitrage (directed by Nicholas Jarecki), has retained more than his fair share of youthfulness, but without masterful cinematography he is left only with his ability; alas, we can see very little beyond the furious condescension peculiar to the super-stressed elite and the self-satisfied smugness of a short-term victorythis is a guy who loves to close the deal.

[The following passage contains plot-spoiling details]

The film tells the story of Robert Miller (Gere), a wealthy hedge-fund manager on the cusp of selling his business. After a rushed birthday dinner with his wife (an underutilized Susan Sarandon) and family, he hurries off to the real party with his mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta). We soon learn that there is more to the sale than we thought. The IRS has come sniffing around and he’s been forced to borrow $400 million in order to plug a hole he created in the company books to finance a shady investment that went bust.

One night, Miller and Julie are in his car when he falls asleep and crashes, killing her. Fearing public and familial shame along with the potential destruction of the deal, he decides to cover it up. He calls an acquaintance named Jimmy (Nate Parker), a young black man from Harlem to take him home. Things unravel for Miller from there. A slovenly detective (Tim Roth summoning his best Columbo impression) is on to him, and attempts to force Miller’s hand by going after the innocent Jimmy. His daughter, an financial executive in his company finds out about the accounting discrepancy and when she confronts him about it, he is remorseless.

I believe it is Gere’s challenge to find some inkling of sympathy in this character. No easy task, to be sure. I think there are two distinct strategies employed in an effort to achieve this. The first is identification with a man who risks losing his family, his money and the company he spent a lifetime building. There are some good moments to this effect. The scene where he’s begging the keeper of his $400 million loan to wait just a little longer was well-played. Though we should see this as contrary to intention—isn’t it great watching the rich guy squirm?—Gere is touchingly pathetic, begging, leaving frustrated. No one wants to see a grown man cry, but then as someone references, he’s sure to have plenty of jack stashed in off-shore accounts, he’ll survive. Then, there is his later desire and (limited) effort to exonerate Jimmy. But he’s unwilling to give himself up to do it.

In the end, Gere beats the charges, Jimmy gets off on an implausible bit of evidence tampering, but it’s his wife gives him his comeuppance, delivering divorce papers and as his alibi for the night of the accident, blackmailing him into signing over everything he has to her non-profit organization. After getting away with treachery of the highest order it’s the family he neglected that brought him down in the end.

Is this really supposed the be a story the moral conflict of a middle-aged one-percenter who ironically thinks he is motivated by benevolence? By the end, the film has resorted to cliché. “Everything I do is for this family!” shouts an exasperated Gere to his wife. If Arbitrage were a success, the viewer might actually wonder whether or not that statement is true. As it is, it seems ridiculous. Gere’s Miller is obviously motivated by selfishness. So Wall Street is all about greed and selfishness? How profound.

How compelling the story might have been as told by Sarandon or Parker. Malick got away with using Gere as an amoral protagonist in a film where story was in the background and the victim of his evil was himself an whip-cracking wheat baron. Here, are set up to hate Gere from the beginning, not only because he’s the guy who has it all, but because he is precisely the guy who prospered at the expense of ordinary Americans.

Helplessness and clawing for survival is far more interesting that clinging to millions. Aren’t we supposed to like underdogs? This is, after all a new day and perspective is exactly what empowers the female and the minority in the face of the white-male whose grip on control is ever-loosening.

As it is they are both paid to keep their mouths shut. If we could see things through their eyes instead, we’d see them taking it away.

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