This post was first published on Culturewatch as part of the Film & Bible Blog. © Tony Watkins 2013. For discussion material on this film, see my Damaris Film Blog discussion guide and the supplementary questions in the published version of this article in the Film & Bible Blog.
Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is a highly successful New York hedge-fund magnate with a fabulous house and a loving family. His brilliant daughter Brooke (Brit Marling, a former investment analyst at Goldman Sachs before going into films) works closely with him as his Chief Financial Officer, and is expected to take over running the business empire after he sells it. On the surface, Miller’s life appears calm and untroubled, but the reality is that a storm is brewing. There are some irregularities in the accounts, and he is desperately working to tie up the sale before they come to light. Miller is a powerful and charismatic man, who is used to having things his own way. He has people around him who paper over any cracks — whether that be discreetly handing him gifts for his family as he arrives home from a business trip, or concealing his $100 million fraud. Miller’s subterfuge is so thorough that even Brooke has no idea about it whatsoever.
It is never clear whether or not Robert’s wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) is aware of his dubious business practices, but we eventually discover that she has turned a blind eye to a string of affairs. Robert, however, is sure that he has concealed his relationship with Julie (Laetitia Casta) — a Frenchwoman whom he has enabled to establish an art gallery — as effectively as his fraud. Both Robert and Ellen are willing to make moral compromises in order to maintain the lifestyle they value so highly.
Though Robert doesn’t realise it at the start of the film, the storm is about to break. The potential buyers are stalling; the man who secretly lent him hundreds of millions of dollars to hide the hole in the accounts from the auditors is demanding repayment; Julie is pushing him to leave Ellen, and is angry that he doesn’t spend more time with her. After a row with Julie, he persuades her to go with him to his country house. Richard Gere says, ‘There’s definitely something about Julie that represents a life-changing possibility. She’s very real, not just a pretty girl or an affair, so that the decision he makes that night leads to a disaster he has to deal with for the rest of the movie.’ The disaster is that he falls asleep at the wheel, crashing the car and killing his lover.
Robert’s instinctive reaction is to protect himself and his reputation at all costs. Rather than phoning 911, he calls Jimmy (Nate Parker), a young black man whose father had once been Robert’s driver, to come for him. No situation, it seems, is beyond Miller’s capacity to resolve. What he hasn’t accounted for, though, is the sharp mind and tenacity of Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth). Bryer quickly realises that there is more to the crash than meets the eye, and it’s not long before he starts sniffing around Robert and Jimmy.
The businessman and the cop are almost mirror images of each other: Miller is stylish and urbane, but Bryer is unpolished and graceless; Miller is determined to cover things up and go free; Bryer is determined to uncover things and make him pay. What both men have in common is that they are prepared to make moral compromises in order to achieve their goals. Miller lies, and persuades others to lie for him, so that the deal is not derailed; Bryer lies and fabricates evidence in his bid to bring Miller down.
Robert Miller is driven by money. ‘It’s taken me 60 years to truly understand what’s important,’ he tells his family. ‘It’s you guys.’ But when Jimmy asks Robert, ‘You think money’s going to fix this?’, he replies, ‘What else is there?’ His absolute love of money is also clear from what he says to Brooke after she discovers the irregularities in the accounts. He justifies his actions by saying, ‘We were going broke! Everything was finished! We’d have nothing. . . . There’s so much money coming out of this [investment] . . . It’s a licence to print money! For everybody! Forever! It is God!’
However, it seems to be not the investment which Robert sees as God, but the wealth generated by it. The initial impulse for this may have been the belief that wealth provides protection. The first words we hear from Robert are in a television interview which he is giving:
I’m a child of the ’50s. . . . [My parents] lived through the Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the bomb. They didn’t think that bad things might happen. They knew that bad things would happen. . . . 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.
The implication is that, whatever life throws at you, having money will protect you from the worst effects. And that is exactly how Robert Miller approaches the problem of having killed his lover in a car crash: he can buy help from Jimmy and he can retain top lawyers. Early on, Ellen asks Robert, ‘How much money do we need? Do you want to be the richest guy in the cemetery?’ Robert’s reply does not sound as though it is intended entirely flippantly: ‘I don’t want to be in the cemetery.’ He presumes that money will be able to buy whatever treatments are necessary to preserve his life for quite some time.
As well as seeing money as providing protection, it also functions as a god for Robert in terms of giving him his meaning and identity. He claims that he’s come to understand that what’s important is his family, but in practice they seem little more than component parts of the image of success which he projects. He has been married to Ellen for a long time, but how much does the relationship mean when he finds his pleasures in a series of other women? She is concerned to financially support the hospital, but that enables him to be seen as a generous philanthropist. Brooke’s skills are immensely valuable in the business, but she is his prodigy and her talent reflects well on him. More than once he refers to himself as the ‘oracle’, suggesting that he sees himself as having near-perfect knowledge of the financial world.
Everything comes second to wealth in Robert’s world: his wife, his lover, his daughter, his friends. When Ellen attacks him for breaking ‘our little girl’s heart’, his blunt response is heartless: ‘That’s how it all works, Ellen. You know that.’ There is just a hint of an acknowledgement that money isn’t everything in Robert’s final conversation with Jimmy.
Robert: You didn’t hurt anybody. You helped a lot of people.
Jimmy: And this piece of paper makes everything okay?
Robert: No. It makes it easier.
But when Robert goes on to say, ‘What you did is way beyond the money,’ Jimmy quickly retorts, ‘Nothing is beyond the money for you, Robert. We both know that.’ This is the tragic reality of Robert Miller’s life: nothing is beyond the money; everything is less than the money. The money is what drives him, and what he dreams about. The money is what he fears losing above everything else, and he suspends his morality in order to avoid losing it. Money is his god. And he is its slave, helplessly caught in its grip. He demonstrates the truth of the Apostle Paul’s observation that:
[P]eople who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. (1 Timothy 6:9–10)
Robert is so blind to his spiritual condition that, in turning to his counterfeit god for help, he distances himself even more from the love of his family, from right morality, and even from any feeling for other human beings. And in doing so, he believes that he has triumphed. He may get away with his crimes, and continue life as before, but he is self-deceived to see it as a victory. The reality is that he has lost in the aspects which really matter: he has lost the battles of conscience and morality; he has given up the struggle to build loving, trusting, supporting relationships with his wife and daughter. He has, as Jesus said, gained the ‘whole world and [lost his] own soul’ (Mark 8:36).