Review: ‘Margin Call’

“A genuinely gripping drama filled with incredible performances.”

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

It’s possible that you will hear about the new movie Margin Call and develop a nervous twitch in your eye. That kind of thing happens a lot when a movie seems aggressively topical. It makes you want to send an angry letter saying, “Hollywood, this is not why you’re here. We hear enough about current events on the news. If you want to talk about something terrible that really happened, at least wait a while to get some perspective on the situation.” Okay, that’s more constructive than angry, but you get what I’m after here. We just plain don’t want to see movies about a war we’re currently involved in, or, in the case of Margin Call, a movie about the current economic crisis. Which I have to admit is too bad. It means people might not see this genuinely gripping drama filled with incredible performances.

Yes, Margin Call does it right. It doesn’t get bogged down in “woe is me” sentimentality or even soapboxing. It’s not trying to be representative of a generation. Margin Call tells the story of a small group of truly interesting, smartly developed characters over a 36 hour period that changes their lives. It’s that narrow focus that gives the film its power, and it’s quite a bit of power indeed.

Margin Call opens with a familiar image: so familiar, in fact, that you’ll be forgiven for rolling your eyes. It’s lay-off time at the big office. Stanley Tucci is the sacrificial lamb du jour, but before he goes he leaves a flash drive behind for a young man, played by Zachary Quinto, with a simple message: “Be careful.” It’s an underplayed moment, and all the more suspenseful for it. What’s the big secret? It’s not corporate espionage, or a murder plot, or anything else your racing mind comes up with. It’s a simple fact: the house of cards is about to fall. The mortgages Wall Street has been buying up for years have turned out to be a dangerously foolish investment, and over the course of a single night the information travels from individual to individual, from meeting to meeting, and everyone who hears it realizes that it’s too late to go back. Finally, it comes down to a decision. Will they let the company go bankrupt, or sell off their toxic assets knowing full well that they’re destroying the American economy in the process?

We all know what happened.

What’s utterly fascinating, thanks to skillful storytelling on the part of writer/director J.C. Chandor, is the complex thought processes that go into making that decision. The internal duel between self-preservation and doing “the right thing.” The exact instant where each character individually realizes that their life pursuits are over, handled with subtle differences every time. The rich contrast between how each rung of the ladder deals with the same information. The stark production design keeps the point in sharp focus. What’s happening is important, and it didn’t happen in a dramatic fashion. It was just another day at the office, someone just ran the numbers in a different way is all. It’s funny how any old moment can be the one that changes everything. You feel really bad for everyone who comes in to work the next day only to learn that their careers are over, but you feel worse for the individuals who come to the conclusion gradually. And although you might like to think that you’d have made a more noble decision, Margin Call understands every little thing that made these people go in the other direction.

There’s a risk Margin Call takes in telling the story of the financial crisis from the perspective of the folks who screwed everything up. The film could have apologized for their behavior, or it could have demonized the “protagonists” in a misguided attempt at catharsis. Margin Call avoids those pitfalls with a truly deft cast of characters and actors who represent subtle variations on the same mindset. Zachary Quinto carries the weight of the film’s suspense on his features, and it seems like he’s as worried than anyone could be until his news works its way up the food chain. Bettany is just wry enough to keep perspective without downplaying the dramatic revelation, and Spacey is just human enough to comprehend the greater implications of at play. Simon Baker is the handsome face who knows how to keep his job but not how to fix the business, and clearly struggles with the notion that his career may no longer be in his hands.

And at the top of it all is Jeremy Irons, with his juiciest role in at least fifteen years. Once he enters the room the movie seems to gravitate around him, even though his screen time is minimal. Like John Hurt in A History of Violence or Orson Welles in Compulsion, it’s feels Margin Call has been just waiting for him to arrive, although you’d never have guessed something was missing before. This may be Albert Brooks’s year for Best Supporting Actor, but if Irons isn’t nominated it’s a crime.

I’m overselling Margin Call a bit. It’s not a timeless classic, but it is a timely, smart film that manages to eke surprising tension and potent drama from a set-up that could have led to a total mess in lesser hands. It’s a very impressive feature film debut from J.C. Chandor, and deserves to be seen and appreciated. It finds sympathy for people who deserve harsh punishment by carefully illustrating how they came to their callous decisions, and by the end of the film it’s hard not to imagine being tempted to do the exact same thing in their stead. And hating yourself for it.


Photo Credits: Walter Thomson
Top Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions