Margin Call (United States, 2011)

October 19, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Margin Call Poster

Long ago, the concept of "money" was devised as a means by which commerce could be simplified - after all, it's easier to carry around some kind of marker than cows or cattle or bags of grain. As society has evolved, however, so has the way in which people view money. Today, it's just numbers in a computer, ways of keeping score. "Wealthy" is no longer a synonym for someone who has enough money to live comfortably (or in luxury) - it's an indication of a winner. Playing the stock market is a game and those who are good at it can tally their winnings in computer dollars (or euros or yen or whatever). Margin Call emphasizes this aspect of the financial sector, where brokers play fast and loose with other people's money in order to be able to claim victory at the end of the day.

It's 2008 and the economy is on a precipice. The financial sector is about to collapse. Margin Call is not a documentary; it does not claim to be factual. Instead, it is a fictionalization that incorporates some of the triggers that led to the real-life crisis. The movie names no names - the brokerage company where the action takes place is referred to merely as "The Firm." However, there's a sense of verisimilitude about the way in which events transpire. We can taste the panic as the snowball begins its inexorable roll downhill. Margin Call may not be telling things exactly as they were, but it's close enough to provide an uncomfortable glimpse behind the curtain. And it's an engrossing "thinking" thriller as well. It's amazing that so much tension can be generated without a shoot-out, a fight, a car chase, or even a death.

Margin Call spans a critical 24 hours in the life of The Firm. As the movie begins, it's layoff day for a significant percentage of the brokers. The ones who are let go are "good," but the survivors are "better." This is a regular cost-cutting measure. The market is sputtering, profits are down, so headcount needs to be reduced. One of the managers being force reduced is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who turns over a pet project to his protégé, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), as he's being shown to the door. Peter stays behind after work to flesh out Eric's models, and the results horrify him. He's looking at projections that indicate the near-future losses will exceed The Firm's total market capitalization. He makes a call to his best buddy, Seth (Penn Badgley), and his boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany). As the clock ticks toward midnight, they return to the office and realize the enormity of Peter's findings. Calls go out to Will's boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey); Sam's boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker); and, finally, the CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who arrives by helicopter at 4 o'clock in the morning. They have two hours to determine how to unload billions of toxic sub-prime mortgage securities before they destroy a company that is "too big to fail."

Margin Call is not political. It is also surprisingly non-judgmental. It's a procedural that begins by examining how the problem is discovered then proceeds to detail how a solution is decided upon and implemented. In a strange way, it's a little like Contagion except, in this case, the characters have heft. Writer/director J.C. Chandor, making his feature debut, has avoided the easy route of demonizing the brokers. They come across as exceedingly human, with all the positive and negative attributes inherent in the species. Some are more greedy than others. Some show more compassion. Others are scared. And nearly everyone has entered "cover your ass" mode.

For an independent movie with no studio backing, the filmmakers were able to assemble an astonishing cast (Tim Robbins, Ben Kingsley, and Carla Gugino were also interested but unable to participate due to schedule conflicts). This speaks volumes about the importance and intensity of the project, which takes the viewer on a wild ride into a world where money has lost the meaning it retains for the average person. We're not in Kansas anymore.

Margin Call is a little talky, and there are times when the exposition slows things down, but Chandor attempts to provide us with the necessary background in easily digestible bites. When Tuld asks Peter to explain things to him as if he was a child, he is speaking for all of us. As if to compensate for the occasionally wordy dialogue, Chandor provides two great monologues. One is delivered by Paul Bettany and the other belongs to Jeremy Irons, who gives what is arguably his best performance in two decades. Other standouts include Kevin Spacey, whose work here is subtle and moving (he's the most sympathetic character and a scene with him comforting his terminally ill dog tweaks the heart strings); Bettany, who displays the perfect mix of alarm and cynicsm; and the always-reliable Stanley Tucci.

Margin Call contains sporadic echoes of Wall Street and The Boiler Room. Considering the culture in which it is immersed, how could it not? However, the movie with which it has the closest relationship may be Glengarry Glen Ross. The same sense of desperation, the same need to make the sale, permeates Margin Call. Both films are to some degree about the dehumanizing impact of money and both are driven more by characters than plot points.

At some point in the future, there will probably be a definitive documentary about the causes and effects of the economic seizure that lies at Ground Zero of Margin Call. That film will undoubtedly be equally fascinating and troubling. But it's doubtful it will provide the mixture of drama and suspense to be found in J.C. Chandor's assured directorial debut.

Margin Call (United States, 2011)

Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Mary McDonnell
Screenplay: J.C. Chandor
Cinematography: Frank G. DeMarco
Music: Nathan Larson
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2011-10-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1