Margin Call (2011)

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J.C. Chandor’s thought-provoking Wall Street Drama boasts a host of memorable performances from its ensemble cast and eschews glamorising the banker lifestyle like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and its recent sequel. In Chandor’s movie, the characters are less cut-and-dry, less obviously evil or motivated by greed. By no means do you wind up necessarily liking any of them, but it seeks to depict their part in the 2008 banking crisis and choses to focus on the drama involved rather than coming down too heavily on either side of the moral argument.

Set at a fictional trading firm shortly before the 2008 banking crisis engulfed the world, we enter proceedings as the company in question is carrying out savage lay-offs. The cold and sudden nature of these involuntary sackings calls to mind Jason Reitman’s comedy drama Up in the Air, only here there is no lighter side to be found. The traders on the floor all worry for their jobs and fear getting the dreaded call to step into an office. One unfortunate sole, whose name does gets called, is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) who, before he was given the boot, was undertaking some top secret research which he felt spelt bad news for the company. Before he leaves, he tosses his memory stick to young whizz-kid Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) with the ominous warning, “be careful”.

Sullivan works late into the night on the research and comes to a horrifying conclusion that the company’s profit model is faulty and unless they unload a whole heap of toxic debt, they will soon face complete annihilation. Sullivan passes this information on to his boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) who in turn passes it up to the Investment Floor Head Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). After convincing him of the dire nature of the situation, the bad news gets filtered steadily upwards through the various levels of higher management until the executive decision is taken to call in the company CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). Once Tuld arrives, he and the other bigwigs must decide on what the company does next, with the only possible option seemingly being to offload the stock as soon as possible, saving themselves but dooming the unwitting recipients.

The events in Margin Call take place over the course of one long night and are set, for the most part, solely in the company offices. This short time frame and claustrophobic confines gives the film an escalating sense of tension as the morning market bell looms increasingly closer. Knowing how the real-life disaster unfolded and thus grasping the enormity of the situation, perhaps even before those on screen do, you can’t help but get caught up in the pressure-cooker like scenario unfolding.

The ensemble cast all do sterling work and really flesh out their characters well during the film’s various heated discussions. Quinto is perfect as the slightly naïve but frighteningly clever youngster and Bettany likewise as the cynical older hand. Spacey is at his best as the boss with a crisis of conscience and Irons just exudes a chilling malevolence as the ruthless executive. When Tuld calmly enters into the first big meeting and barely even registers a flicker of concern as he sets out to rally the troops, it’s an all too believable depiction of how the real CEO’s may have acted when the crisis was unfolding. At a telling moment he says, “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter or cheat.” His only option here is to be the first, save his company at all costs, no matter what the repercussions.

Chandor’s debut feature plays out entirely in a series of very intense and pointed conversations. Sometimes they are shouted, others spoken in hushed tones, but all of them have a very deliberate relevance and allow a small insight into each character’s mindset. As previously mentioned, the film doesn’t set out to demonise or, alternatively, to justify the banker’s actions, rather it seeks to give a reasoned account of how their real life counterparts might have come to the decisions they did. Unquestionably there’s plenty of immoral activity on display, but Chandor frames it in a manner which forces the viewer to take a step back and merely observe how such a crisis played out. Rather than making you angry and frustrated at the actions of these wealthy bankers, the film generates a sense of impending doom and misery. You know this isn’t going to end well and so do the characters on screen. They are merely delaying the inevitable.

An intelligent and slick script coupled with a star-studded cast all on fine form has seen Margin Call drawn justifiable comparisons to David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross in some quarters. While perhaps not as memorable and entertaining as Mamet’s feature, Chandors debut film is nevertheless a gripping and well-crafted downbeat depiction of white-collar meltdown.

Director: J.C. Chandor
Writer: J.C. Chandor
Stars: Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Demi Moore
Runtime: 107 min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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