Release Date (UK) – 13th January 2012
Certificate (UK) – 15
Running time – 105 minutes
Country – USA
Director – J. C. Chandor
Starring – Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Zachary Qunito, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker
When there are more Cash-for-Gold ads on TV than scheduled programming, it can only mean one thing: recession still on. What better time then, for another attempt to show us how those at the top of the heap got us into this mess in the first place? But J. C. Chandor’s take on the 24 hours before the bottom fell out of the US mortgage market isn’t about banker-bashing. From inside a Wall Street goliath (loosely based on the Lehmann Brothers) Margin Call condemns the system, but is surprisingly balanced towards the individuals involved. It’s all the better for it.
On a day of brutal redundancies, Peter Sullivan (Quinto) a brilliant but naively idealistic junior analyst, is handed a mysterious data file with a warning to “be careful”. What it contains is explosive; the market is about to collapse. Peter’s discovery is escalated through layers of management, via a cynical and unnervingly abrasive trader (Bettany), to a weary and disillusioned Head of Trading, Sam Rogers (Spacey), right to the very top; CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons on deliciously evil form). As the decision-makers work out how to get out alive, the only remaining question is whether Rogers, an isolated beacon of something approaching integrity, will go along with the plan.
If you’re hoping you’ll leave the cinema knowing what a “margin call” actually is, forget it; the level of detail devoted to the events is summed up by Tuld’s (Irons’) request “speak to me as you would a small child… or golden retriever”. If it’s a little reductive, the benefit is a pleasingly pacey, dialogue-driven drama (not dissimilar to The Social Network in this respect). Its billing as a thriller doesn’t do the film justice; it’s not adrenalin-pumping – the tone is much subtler than that – instead, it’s underpinned with a constant, sickly sense of impending doom. Looming, sweeping shots of New York’s financial district at night tell us something bad is out there, and it’s coming this way. All in, it’s a well-crafted first feature from Chandor.
Considering we all know more or less where this ends up, it’s impressive that the characters come across as human. The cast put in universally great performances as variously screwed up individuals – Bettany, Spacey and Irons are especially compelling. Alongside the greed, back-biting and rivalry, there’s loneliness, ethical crises and an underlying stench of self-loathing. Except for the uppermost decision-makers (Tuld/Irons is mad with greed), the message is clear: they’re certainly not guiltless, but they’re not evil either – they’ve been chewed up by the system. For evidence, just look at Sam Roger’s (Spacey’s) cancer-stricken dog. Could it be a metaphor for the personal life he’s let fall apart in his devotion to his career? (Yes. Also, for the banking industry riddled with sickness, and the impending death of the world economy. Probably.) They seem too much like normal people with understandable motivations, to condemn them outright.
Where it’s balanced towards the players, it’s clear where Margin Call stands on the game itself. It is insistent on the emptiness of an industry with nothing tangible to show for its existence – as Tuld (Irons) says “It’s just money, it’s all made up”. Former rocket scientists and engineers struggle to find the meaning in their work on the trading floor – what value does it have, compared to building a bridge, or even digging holes in the ground? We only ever see the reality most people inhabit as a blur of lights and faces slipping past car windows; that, or it’s out of sight completely, hundreds of stories below.
Unfortunately, Chandor’s success in painting this industry as so completely “other”, reflects on its inhabitants – as a result it’s a struggle to relate to their woes and fears. It’s bizarre, considering the vast impact we know these events have, that the stakes just don’t seem very high. Perhaps that’s because it’s made very clear that the worst case scenario for most of them – if everything really goes tits up – will be a juicy pay-off. It’s not detrimental, but it’s problematic that you never feel concerned about the characters you’re spending your 105 minutes with. You certainly know something’s gone wrong when even a dying dog leaves you feeling a bit cold.
But Margin Call still makes a considerable impact. In part, that lies in witnessing the quiet and calm decision of a powerful few to self-preserve at unimaginable cost to others. It’s chilling. Maybe even more affecting is the uncomfortable realisation that for most of us, had we been on the trading floor that day, we’d have behaved no differently. Apart from all that, with a very slick package of excellent performances, snappy dialogue and a bit with a dog, it’s also an extremely compelling watch.