Arriving at last year’s award season like a stealth missile, Margin Call hit hard and hit fast. Here was a film which, on paper, read like a knock-off Wall Street, with a cast so flashy it could only have been bought with insider tradings and a first time feature writer-director who had no right mixing it with the big boys. But the truth is; Margin Call is one of the most compelling, haunting and honest films about the financial climate we find ourselves in at the moment.
When Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk management expert in a highflying New York investment bank, is unceremoniously fired he hands an incomplete projection model to mathematical, genius broker Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). While his money-obsessed friend Seth (Penn Badgley) and boss Will (Paul Bettany) go out drinking, Peter stays behind to complete Eric’s figures. What he discovers is that the company is holding on to stock that, if the tide were to turn, would bury the company in bankruptcy. Presenting his findings to head of sales Sam (Kevin Spacey) and head honcho Jared (Simon Baker) they soon realise they’re in deep trouble. With an emergency board meeting called by company CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), all employees of the company must ask moral and financial questions of themselves as their careers are tested to extremes.
Essentially the firm has its hand on stocks so radio active if they keep hold of them they’re going to glow in the dark till the end of days. So they do what any decent banker would do; sell it to others, get rid of it, dump it at any cost because in doing so the problem is no longer theirs. They know what will happen, it will create a market crash, everyone else will sink while these guys swim off to holiday homes and Ferraris.
The Occupy Wall Street Movement of 2011 would probably explode with rage if they saw Margin Call. Writer-director JC Chandor made no secret that he based the events in the film around the fate of The Lehman Brothers but here we’re inside the offices, hearing every debate, every piece of corruption spewed from the 1% of this world while we the 99% are left watching, mouths aghast at the sheer audacity of the banks handling of our money.
The film pulls no punches, rife with irony – the first people to get fired in the company are those in the risk management department, the people making sure the worst doesn’t happen – and able to simplify the financial jargon just enough to allow you to keep up, Margin Call is arguably one of the most scary films you’re likely to see. Chandor shoots everything with a cold, clinical grace. The camera gliding through the building to slowly show us just what goes on behind the money-making, or in this case money-losing, decisions. It is a damning indictment of how the moneymen are so anxious to protect their own financial well being as to literally sacrifice the rest of the economy. Not to suggest it’s devoid of emotional pull, far from it; for some these decisions rest heavily on their consciousness, but there are bigger concerns at large, red flags that could put all and sundry in serious trouble with the government if caught.
Each scene escalates the situation more and more, from Peter discovering the horrific over-sites to the board deciding the solution, right through to the execution of their master plan, Margin Call is a pulsating film that will have your heart racing despite being little more than people talking in rooms. It is testament to what a good script, careful character development and a gripping story can do without the inclusion of Hollywood flair. Towards the end, the film begins to slightly lose some of the momentum gained up to that point but just as you wonder if it was worth your full investmentyou’re left with an ending so beyond Faustian you may as well have won the lottery.
Universally the performances are great. Zachary Quinto bringing a quiet emotional terror to juxtapose with his Star Trek Spock persona. Paul Bettany oozes enough slimy pragmatic grace as to stay just the right side of good over villainy, while Jeremy Irons goes the other way and becomes the devil incarnate; a self deprecating crook so morally bankrupt he’d scare the life out of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko. Kevin Spacey goes through the biggest arc of the film, starting as an almost Glengarry Glen Ross style salesman and rapidly becoming the moral compass that most others are swimming against. TV’s The Mentalist Simon Baker brings his calm-under-fire presence to the film and treads a brilliantly fine line between sinister hatchet man and paternal caregiver. That you never know which label he falls under is part of the character’s power.
Margin Call may not have one the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (wrongfully losing out to Woody Allen’s over-hyped Midnight In Paris) but it is, simply put, one of the most riveting and haunting films you’re likely to see. One thing is for sure; upon viewing Margin Call you will think twice about where to invest any money you might have saved up. Under the mattress is probably your safest best.
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