Set in the high-stakes world of the financial industry, Margin Call involves the key players at an investment firm during one perilous 24-hour period in the early stages of the 2008 financial crisis. When an entry-level analyst unlocks information that could prove to be the downfall of the firm, a roller-coaster ride ensues as decisions both financial and moral catapult the lives of all involved to the brink of disaster.
It’s set among the financial schemers and plotters of Wall Street but writer-director J.C. Chandor’s striking debut feature plays like a finely-calibrated thriller, a compelling tale of money, power, greed, ego and personal and corporate responsibility.
There are no outright heroes or villains in Margin Call: instead the film focuses on a bunch of increasingly desperate, highly paid and supposedly smart men and one woman who face a series of ethical dilemmas.
As a result, the film is far more realistic and grounded than the theatrics depicted in both Wall Street movies by Oliver Stone, a director who’s never been accused of subtlety.
The tension builds inexorably as events unfold in the space of 24 hours in 2008 in an un-named, 107-year-old investment bank, perhaps modelled on Lehman Brothers, whose collapse precipitated the global financial crisis.
The opening scene sets the tone of a ruthless corporate culture as risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a loyal 19-year company veteran, is abruptly fired, part of a wave of retrenchments.
Dale is ordered to pack his personal belongings in a cardboard box and escorted from the building. On the way out he hands a USB-drive to his young protégé Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) with a warning: 'Be careful."
With good reason: Sullivan quickly discovers Dale’s spread sheets are projecting that the losses incurred in trading mortgage-backed securities could soon eclipse the company’s entire worth. In other words, a financial Armageddon looms.
A late-night emergency meeting of the senior partners is hastily arranged, attended by world-weary head of trading Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), his serpentine boss Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), risk management chief Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), Sullivan, fretful fellow analyst Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) and their supervisor, the cocky, cynical Will Emerson (Paul Bettany).
Jeremy Irons plays the firm’s wily, patrician chief executive John Tuld (not coincidentally similar to Dick Fuld, the former head of Lehman who figured in the impressive HBO telemovie Too Big to Fail), who drops in via helicopter.
After an elaborate set-up, the suspense in the second half of the film revolves chiefly around how these financial geniuses strive to extricate themselves from the unholy mess they created, and figuring out who’ll still be standing.
Tuld’s solution is to unload the firm’s billions of dollars of toxic assets to unsuspecting buyers that morning, knowing they are worthless: a proposition that poses a particularly thorny moral dilemma for Rogers, who sheds more tears over his dying dog than his fallen comrades.
It’s clear that Chandor, whose father spent 40 years at Merrill Lynch, is no fan of these Masters of the Universe, stressing Tuld’s obscene wealth and having him utter phrases such as, 'It’s just money, pieces of paper with pictures on it."
Bettany’s Emerson typifies the privileged, insensitive and ugly face of capitalism, telling a co-worker, 'Fuck normal people," and happily explaining how he spent his $2.5 million salary last year, some of it on hookers.
The mood isn’t entirely dark, leavened by flashes of humour as when Emerson goes up on the roof, appears to contemplate jumping off the ledge, chickens out and mutters 'not today" as he glances heavenwards.
The performances are uniformly excellent, each actor given decent time in which to delineate his character and the quandaries he faces, although Moore’s Sarah is the least well developed: perhaps a comment by Chandor about the unfairness of glass ceilings.
Spacey is a stand-out as the conflicted loner Rogers, who has several marvellous scenes with Irons’ imperious, unflappable Tuld, and Tucci makes every minute count as a victim who gets a degree of comeuppance.
To the filmmaker’s credit the dialogue is largely free of Wall Street jargon, although it’s a stretch to believe that high-flying financial types in Tuld and Rogers both would say to their underlings 'speak to me in plain English."