Beasts Southern
Credit: Jess Pinkham

Every year at Sundance since the 2008 economic meltdown, there has been a movie that’s looked at the new America through the lens of finance; each of these films has been juicy and enlightening in equal measure. Back in 2009, just a few months after the crisis hit, Steven Soderbergh showed up with his slyly arresting, shot-on-the-fly The Girlfriend Experience. 2010 gave us the wrenching executive-downsize drama of The Company Men, and last year it was Margin Call, that enthralling look at greed and guilt on Wall Street. This year, the big-money spectacle is Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, a tasty financial thriller starring Richard Gere as an investment titan who is standing at the precipice.

Gere, playing this silver-haired fox, has never been more likable or intensely alive as an actor, and that works for the movie in a fascinating way, because the man he’s portraying is a world-class sleazebag. He lies and sleeps around, he commits fraud, he slinks away from a terrible car accident that was his fault, and the movie makes no apologies for any of this behavior. Yet the whole time, we’re torn between wanting to see justice done and wanting to see him get away with it. That, as Hitchcock knew well, is the way that a true thriller works: It creates moral urgency by making the audience complicit in what it knows is wrong. The early scenes of Arbitrage have some of that stomach-churning, high-finance-vertigo anxiety that Margin Call did, as we learn that Gere’s Robert Miller, a billionaire hedge-fund magnate, is attempting to sell off his company, but that he’s covering up a $420 million hole in the firm’s portfolio. To cook the books, he has borrowed the funds from a fellow tycoon who wants his chunk of fortune back. Can Miller stretch out his money-mirage scheme long enough to close the deal?

Just as we’re settling into the enjoyment of watching Richard Gere act benign and silky-smooth on the surface even as he telegraphs the jangled nerves he’s concealing inside, we learn that he’s got other, trashier problems: a high-maintenance mistress who throws fits if he’s 15 minutes late, and then…that car accident, which he tries to cover up. This stuff could almost be a movie of its own, and for a while I thought Jarecki might be piling on too many situations. But the way that this sharply structured, tautly written drama keeps overlapping Miller’s dilemmas, tightening the screws on him, upping the ante to make him (and us) squirm, really works. The fact that some of the tension comes from Law & Order-style melodrama — that it’s not all high-end jargon and numbers-crunching — may make the film seem less overtly artful than Margin Call, but the theme here, in the end, is every bit as rich.

Drawing on elements of the Madoff scandal, the movie digs into the way that money, when there’s this much of it and it is manipulated this abstractly, tends to breed dishonesty, and how that dynamic inevitably spills over from the financial to the personal. Tim Roth is tensely funny as the movie’s Columbo-Javert figure, a cop who keeps showing up like a pesky mutt, and Susan Sarandon (as Miller’s wife), Nate Parker (as the Harlem kid with a mysterious connection to him), and even Graydon Carter (in a flourish of a supporting cameo) make the most of well-etched roles. Arbitrage illustrates one form that a smart topical thriller can take: It doesn’t turn its issues into a glorified essay, but it does use them to give the audience a vital emotional workout. This is Nicholas Jarecki’s dramatic-feature debut, and it’s already clear that he has the talent to make shrewdly terrific Hollywood movies. Here’s hoping that Arbitrage is the first of many.

* * * *

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie that has violently divided people here. I’m in the camp that didn’t go for it, but I can see how the very qualities that turned me off about it could result in it becoming an award winner. It’s a very art-conscious movie: a piece of phantasmagorical anthropology, set in the Delta among a group of shack dwellers so poor and removed that it would be absurd to say they live on the wrong side of the tracks. (There would have to be tracks first.) The director, Benh Zeitlin, uses a cast of nonactors, and he doesn’t so much create a story with them as hold his wavery camera in front of them and wait for something to happen, which it seldom does. The movie is narrated by its saintly ragamuffin heroine, a 6-year-old named Hushpuppy, and Quvenzhané Wallis, the little girl who plays her, certainly has presence, though her performance, which is stitched together with voice-over, is almost entirely reactive. The world that Hushpuppy inhabits is filled with overwhelming forces, from her raspy, raging father (Dwight Henry) to a hurricane that brews and erupts — it appears to be Katrina — to oversize animals that look like wild boars out of a fantasy kingdom.

There’s no denying that Beasts of the Southern Wild shows us an America we’ve never seen in a movie before. Visually, at least, the film brings us up close to what it presents as the raw life-force squalor of people on the outer reaches of civilization. Would it have been too much to ask, though, for the filmmaker to stage, like, scenes? Beasts of the Southern Wild is so busy rubbing its “authenticity” in your face that, to me, it never quite becomes a movie. Yet that, I’m afraid, is what appears to give it a special purity at a place like Sundance. It’s uncontaminated by the vulgarity of trying to entertain you. It’s also got an apocalyptic aura that is very Take Shelter-in-the-bayou. The storm that finally arrives is impressive, but it’s the movie itself that’s a perfect storm of preciously aestheticized film-festival correctness.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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