A portrait of the eve of 2008’s financial crisis that plays out with funereal inevitability, Margin Call loves speechifying, but the film is far more assured when lingering in the silence of its morally compromised characters. First-time writer-director J.C. Chandor’s drama concerns a fictional Wall Street firm that, courtesy of research done by a recently downsized risk-management employee (Stanley Tucci) who passes his findings along to a hotshot “rocket scientist” underling (Zachary Quinto), discovers that its lousy, leveraged securities threaten impending ruin. This dire revelation is quickly passed up the corporate ladder, resulting in an all-night raft of meetings and debates between the company’s higher-ups. From troubled trading-floor boss Sam (Kevin Spacey), his second-in-command Will (Paul Bettany), and financial officer Sarah (Demi Moore), to bluntly self-interested CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), employees are left to grapple not only with the enormous cost wrought by their reckless derivatives risks on the firm and the economy, but with the potential professional and ethical cost survival will entail. It’s the stuff of blustery masters-of-the-universe melodrama, which is why Chandor’s debut is most striking for its general refusal to douse his material in Oliver Stone glitz and sizzle, eschewing Wall Street’s aesthetic sexiness and glorification for a sober-minded consideration of its eve-of-apocalypse scenario.
Conflict in Margin Call doesn’t arise from histrionic confrontations, but resides within Sam, who struggles with Tuld’s order to have his traders sell all of their worthless securities, a move that will save the firm short-term but have long-lasting repercussions on individual and corporate reputations. The director’s fondness for having his characters encapsulate the story’s contradictory moral positions via longwinded oration can be an anchor on the proceedings’ momentum, even if said lectures capture the bald-faced, coldly reasoned avarice that drives the industry. His sardonic jabs at his milieu’s inhabitants, however, ring truer: the executives’ constant demands that things be explained “in plain English” (a dig at their cluelessness about their business’ actual operations), or a scene in which cutthroat bigwig Jared (Simon Baker) and Sarah discuss ivory-tower management concerns while blithely ignoring the cleaning lady in between them on the elevator.
Even better still are those moments when greed is simply allowed to hang in the air, unspoken, as the common motivator for every participant’s actions, from Tuld down to young Seth (Penn Badgley), whose persistent talk about his superiors’ exorbitant salaries reveals his own obsession. The insatiable hunger for money oozes out of Chandor’s methodical pans across efficient trading floors and the glittering NYC skyline, generating ominous tension as the story proceeds down a path as ugly as it is inexorable.
Chandor’s capable cast underplays with authenticity, allowing the tale’s new, dawning reality to wash over their characters in waves of fear, panic, resignation, and fury. The writer-director’s climactic hole-digging metaphor proves more than a tad heavy-handed, but, like much of Margin Call, it gets at fundamental truths about our recent financial troubles, built as they were on a speculative industry predicated on products of little physical reality. When Tuld asserts that money is “make believe,” and that he’ll endure because society’s rich-poor dynamics are immutable, he verbalizes, however bluntly, the film’s astute perspective on the egotism of corporate titans and the underlying abstractness of the businesses that made them modern kings.
By not working in tangibles, Margin Call’s Wall Street cretins are free to concoct whatever rules they like, damn the peons who suffer. Chandor’s italicized lines of dialogue grate (Seth, looking over a rooftop edge: “It’s a long way down”), as does a crass attempt to court sympathy for Sam via a dying-dog device. Nonetheless, his solemn, clear-sighted film accurately avoids fantasyland boardroom heroism while lucidly assessing the indomitable persistence of unchecked greed, which—be it for status, clothes, cars, houses, or whores (Will giddily admits to spending $76,500 on them)—is presented as not just a cancer, but also, ultimately, a self-perpetuating prison.