|Rating: The Good – 78.4
Duration: 107 mins
Director: J.C. Chandor
Stars: Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey
There have been a few attempts to depict the types of wheeling and dealings that underlay the catastrophic financial meltdown of 2008. Some have missed the mark such as Oliver Stone’s Money Never Sleeps while some have got closer like Curtis Hanson’s TV movie Too Big to Fail. However, all fall in the wake of J.C. Chandor’s elegant Margin Call. It won’t take long to guess the real life investment bank that the story focuses on even though it’s never named and the film plays carefully on the audience’s still raw nerves to augment the sense of impending doom.
Margin Call begins with a series of humiliating and utterly tactless firings by the corporation in question as they proceed with their most recent culling. As one of the higher profile victims of the purge (Stanley Tucci’s risk manager) is escorted out of the building, cardboard box in hand, he gives his protege (Zachary Quinto) a disk containing a risk analysis he was in the middle of completing. When the younger analyst stays late and completes the work, he discovers that the bank is chronically over extended and has somehow ended up with more potential dept on its books than the entire value of the company. The cavalry are scrambled and a series of panicked meetings are held proceeding up the echelons of the company until the head honchos, led by Jeremy Irons’ master of the universe, are choppered in to take drastic action.
What that action is we probably already know and it ain’t good for the rest of the world but Chandor’s great achievement here is that he nonetheless keeps us on tenterhooks. He also prevents this film from becoming a finger pointing exercise, thereby distracting from the overarching issue, the inherent fault within the system. There are no unequivocally bad guys here. They’re all human beings just trying to make the best of their situations. Yes, some are more ruthless than others within those parameters and all are guilty of looking after themselves without the smallest consideration for anyone else but there’s nothing that would reflect typical evil archetypes. As it happens, this approach also makes the film more engaging because each of the characters are allowed to grow into something more real than a caricature and so the crisis is continuously informed by their strengths and weaknesses. Everybody is extremely smart at their own job, egocentric enough to remain ignorant of the other’s, and reckless enough to ignore that problem.
If the story of the crisis describes a perfect storm of contributory factors, the film represents an almost perfect coming together of writing, acting, and directing. The script is often electric and pitched at just right level. The dialogue is technical but not so it loses the audience. It’s also articulate and infused with an escalating anxiety. But amazingly, it’s also very subjective. Every sentence uttered reveals more about the characters’ sentiments while assuredly driving the subtle emotional angles to story. There are moments towards the end of the film when the dialogue runs a little flat but thankfully the personality of the players fills the breach. Kevin Spacey is better than he has been in some time as the head trader whose personal life intersects with the emerging crisis in a manner that both steels him to pressure from above and makes him more sensitive to the implications it will have for the profession he still values. Quinto (who also produced the film) is the slightly incredulous number cruncher extraordinaire who is almost imperceptibly assimilated into the machinery of his company as the night rolls on.
Spacey and Quinto both put in interesting shifts as do Tucci and Demi Moore but it’s Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, and surprisingly Simon Baker who churn and burn through their lines. Bettany adds an important vigour to the slow pace of the film as the cocky trader. It could easily have veered towards just another too cool for school turn but he underlays it all with a nervous energy not to mention a curiously revealed moral compass. Baker makes for a terrific second in command who levels his well written character with an unscrupulous calm. But he still manages to sheen his unflappable exterior with the odd bead of sweat which again helps to emphasise the seriousness of the situation. The arch scene stealer himself, Jeremy Irons, after a tasty if not brilliant directorial buildup from Chandor, is introduced later than the rest but he owns the camera when he enters its frame. He is the very definition of commanding as is required of his character but he too finds all manner of near invisible ways to imbue his character with subtle desperation. But at all times, his delivery is suave and erudite and he makes for addictive viewing.
The final touch of class is Chandor’s polished stewardship. Okay, so there are a couple of coarse metaphors scattered about the film but, for the most part, Margin Call is wonderfully constructed. Feeding off his precisely structured script, Chandor paces the film immaculately so that the film glides forward under the invading tension. There are also some artfully sculpted interior and exterior shots which are adroitly complemented by Nathan Larson’s softly mechanical and very beautiful score. However, it’s Chandor’s general use of sound that adds perhaps the most depth to the drama. Whether it’s from the nervous, defensive, and/or accusatory back-and-forths of the protagonists or the diegetic sound of the offices during varying states of business, this film seems to exude a natural unease from the use of its sound. And during a stunning 120 second segment, those sounds come together with that score to produce the movie’s critical scene. With so much quality, Margin Call should have fared better at the box office but the financial drama remains a niche draw. However, if ever there was a representative to demonstrate how good it can get when done right, it’s Margin Call.
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