First time feature length director, J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call has all the trappings of a big hit: it’s star-studded and ominous; its topic is potent and relevant, especially in the “Occupy Wall Street” days. But Margin Call is lacking one critical factor: consequence. No one truly fails in this film. Sure, executives lose their jobs but with their severances the tragedy of termination is more like winning the lottery. We never see the outcome of the bloodbath. What Margin Call does well, however, is intimately portray some very wealthy people sweat, chew steak, and justify their position with cleverly worded speeches.

The Players:

The Plot:

Set amidst a massive layoff of financial suits in 2008 New York, a young analyst (Zachary Quinto) breaks a code that further unravels an already questionably shady investment firm. Over a span of roughly 24 hours, low level analysts to top executives are caught in the revelation that this discovery will forever change their lives and the history of the financial industry.

The Good:

  • The Human Factor: Kevin Spacey’s Sam Rogers is deeply conflicted about his work. He is controlled by the money and he hates himself and his boss (played by Jeremy Irons) for it. He is the rally  man that delivers great motivating speeches to get product off the floor. At night, though, in the quiet, he is a human. Even as cliched at that might sound, Spacey brings a softness to Rogers that benefits the film. It would be too easy to be disgusted by every cast member for their greed. His duality about his role in selling something of absolutely no value (and massive amounts of it) balances the a-emotional John Tuld (Irons) and Jared Cohen (Simon Baker).
  • The Rocket Scientist: Peter Sullivan (Quinto) got into the financial industry because, in his words, it pays better than being a rocket scientist. This unassuming, but mathematically brilliant character gets a hold of the formula started by Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) and because of his reverence for his recently terminated boss, spends a night getting all the numbers to add up. What he doesn’t know is that this revelation will start a whirlwind of chaos and secret late night meetings that will cost the country obscene amounts of money. Quinto plays the analyst almost like a savant – he wants human connection but digs into the number crunching. In a scene where he delivers the news about the formula to the top dog, Quinto is great. Sullivan is calm when the rest of the room is quivering around him. It’s as though he truly doesn’t understand that in this world the sky is falling.
  • The Pace: Margin Call is fast on its feet. There are no wasted moments. There are some wordy diatribes (e.g. Sam Emerson (Paul Bettany) explaining how he spent millions of dollars on houses, cars, hookers, and booze is noteworthy) but they fit here. These people sell – they sell products, they sell themselves, and they sell artificial reality to allow themselves to sleep at night.

 The Bad:

  • The Stakes: Margin Call doesn’t spend enough time playing out the consequences of the choices that are made in the film. The only real option presented is to sell all the product (essentially a bundle of vapor) or to go belly up. Maybe two lines are devoted to what that might mean to the world outside the building. In the universe of this picture, the only thing that stands to be lost is capital. For the players here, who take helicopters to work and show up to 2:00 a.m. meetings in perfectly pressed suits, there isn’t a reason to have a whole lot of sympathy if their salary has six instead of seven zeroes when the day is done.
  • Irons’ Up Close Chewing: Jeremy Irons’ John Tuld, the swift thinking, financial-tea-leaf reading head of a firm that deals in dollar figures in the trillions, is believably genius. We buy that he made himself from his talent to predict the unpredictable. He’s a decisive, heartless autocrat. He shows us that in so many ways throughout the film that in the morning aftermath of the all-night battle, Chandor’s choice to have him feast on steak just feels unnecessary. Yes, one way to portray his level of distance is to give him a tranquil penthouse sunrise setting while the madness carries on below, but at this point, Tuld has already established that he will stop at nothing to survive. The speech over half chewed steak is overkill following an otherwise remarkable and subtle performance.

Overall:

While it’s not as much of an edge-of-your-seat thriller as it’s billed, Margin Call sets a swift pace and doesn’t muddy itself up with over explanation as to how the financial crisis occurred. Rather, the film gives weight to the decision-makers behind the crisis and how they chose to ignore the data (however complicated or simple it may have been) and the rationalizations they told their underlings to keep up morale behind a curtain of smoke and mirrors.

Rating: 7/10

Margin Calls hits theaters October 21st.

Margin Call trailer