In spite of its lackluster visual style and its queasily compassionate portrayal of heartless Wall Street hucksters, writer-director J.C. Chandor's Margin Call is one of the year's most impressive and entertaining films.
Margin Call is about an investment firm facing a financial crisis, but the film's blackest running joke is that only one or two people who work there truly knows how or why it's happening. Most of the action takes place over a 24-hour period that begins when financial whiz kid Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) is given a flash drive by his just-fired former mentor Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who tells him to "be careful" with its contents. As day turns into night, Sullivan finishes the work Dale started. And his conclusions are disturbing enough to prompt a late-night/early-morning meeting with the firm's top brass.
You don't need to know much about mortgage-backed securities or market capitalization to share these company men's sense of panic. Indeed, Chandor lets terms linger throughout the film as ominous shibboleths. In a sly bit of narrative compression, Chandor also positions the firm's CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), as an audience surrogate. When Tuld arrives at the office via helicopter to see if he can fix his company's mess, he asks for a manageable summary of events unadorned by any scary fiscal mumbo-jumbo. When he coos to Sullivan, "Speak as you might to a young child or a golden retriever," he — and we — are both relieved and frightened.
The additional talk that unspools as the firm's members figure out how to save themselves is glorious — direct, wry, contemplative, bewildered, and ultimately mournful. There are several superb ancillary performances to relish, with Irons, Quinto, Paul Bettany, and Demi Moore (!) as the standouts. But as longtime trader Sam Rogers, Kevin Spacey may have the best role of all. He's landed a part his friend and mentor, the late Jack Lemmon, would have coveted, and there's more than a little of The Apartment's C.C. Baxter in Spacey's conflicted corporate cheerleader. While his prickly intelligence and smarter-than-you vocal inflections never disappear entirely (can any American actor convey more menace with the question "What?"), Spacey's performance is anchored by a solid, middle-aged fatigue that he's never shown before.
Toward the end of the film, one of the characters justifies his actions by pointing the finger at the American middle class for its willingness to look away from the dirty financial dealings that have helped underwrite the American dream. It's a bold and uncomfortable accusation — and one that, in spite of my own loathing for corporate America and disaster capitalism, definitely hit me (and my retirement accounts) hard. The boys at the computers in the big city are easy to blame, but anyone looking for downright villainy has seen too many movies. How shocking that a film full of riffs on numbers, projections, and the expediencies of moral relativism would save one of its best gut-punches for the well-heeled rubes in the seats.
Opening Friday, November 4th