Can’t we allow ourselves to blamelessly dehumanize one group of real-life boogeymen without the fear of some would-be humanist insisting that these monsters, like us, have souls? Margin Call says, “No,” refusing the viewer even the cathartic comfort of tsk-tsking the stock market traders that first discovered the recent collapse and were almost instantly forced to begin pulling out their assets.
According to the film, those investment bankers are human too, sharks that were turned into martyrs as soon as they realized just how bad thing had gotten. They had to fire each other, watch everything they worked for go up in flames, and as if that wasn’t enough, one character even loses his dog to liver cancer while all of this is going on. These Armani suit-wearing grunts lost their livelihoods, which in some cases was the one thing they wanted to do in life, thanks to circumstances beyond their control. And yet, at this point in time, when the wounds from the recent recession have still yet to heal and the job market is still insanely tight, one has to wonder: Who cares? Why make this plea for tolerance now and, more importantly, who wants to hear it?
Margin Call begins pre-recession, after Eric (Stanley Tucci), a senior risks analyst at an unnamed firm, is fired along with 80% of his department due to budget cuts. Eric passes on some highly volatile information to young go-getter and former rocket scientist, Peter (Zachary Quinto), but warns him to “be careful” with it. The information in question suggests that the market is on the verge collapse. Peter brings these findings to his boss, Will (Paul Bettany), who brings it to his boss, Sam (Kevin Spacey), and so on until John (Jeremy Irons) is called in to make the eponymous call and decide the company’s fate.
According to writer-director J.C. Chandor’s logic, most of these characters are blameless victims by the time Margin Call takes place. It doesn’t matter what their role was in hastening the market collapse, what matters is that at that point in time, they were screwed and hence unfortunately had to pull the company’s stocks out and make themselves obsolete. Still, considering the fact that the film isn’t based on a real-life bank’s problems, but rather a melodrama constructed from composite parts: Who cares?
What’s the point of demonizing the cold-blooded John for calmly doing his job and getting lots of money for it while feeling sorry for poor Sam, who’s given the unenviable task of motivating his employees to effectively fall on their swords? Even when these characters’ problems are considered in the abstract, like when one of these bankers compares the group to a bunch of prostitutes, or one of them contemplates suicide, or Sam buries his dead dog…these people are despicable. Even the firm’s less fortunate traders, the ones that are eventually stuck selling millions of dollars worth of dud stocks, are working furiously toward earning an extra million dollar severance package. These guys may be about to lose their jobs and their credibility, but none of them are going to leave the office empty-handed.
In his haste to be everyone’s friend and treat every character but John to a pity party, Chandor frequently creates double standards in his film’s arbitrary and supposedly humane standards. Sam is the best example of this. Sam, who is concerned for the future of his soon to be ex-employees, more sympathetic than John, who fires people and then eats steak. The fact that Chandor points the finger of blame at John, who, as a hired gun that’s meant to only solve major problems at the bank, and not at Sam is incredible. Remorse or no remorse, all of these guys are all guilty to some extent of swindling the public. I want to hate all of them and not just the last baddy left twirling his mustache when the shit hit the fan.
Margin Call will play on March 23 and 24 as part of this year’s New Directors/New Films.