A film review by Craig J. Koban December 4, 2011


2011, R, 109 mins.


Sam Rogers: Kevin Spacey / Will Emerson: Paul Bettany / John Tuld: Jeremy Irons / Peter Sullivan: Zachary Quinto / Seth Bregman: Penn Badgley / Jared Cohen: Simon Baker / Mary Rogers: Mary McDonnell / Sarah Robertson: Demi Moore / Eric Dale: Stanley Tucci

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor

Made for the bargain bin price tag of just $3 million and shot in less than three weeks, J.C. Candor’s MARGIN CALL – his directorial debut – is a quietly thrilling and intense financial drama that frighteningly speaks to our recent economic woes that have paralyzed North America.  Although the film is fictional, it heavily utilizes the real-life 2008 global financial collapse in its storyline to capture what it must have been like for large corporations and businesses to deal with the unavoidable capsizing of the market.  One thing the film does with an uncanny textbook precision is relay how America’s financial institutions were utterly consumed with their own gluttony first and the well being of their workers and the general good of the public a distant second.   

MARGIN CALL does not involve a real corporation, nor does it even provide the name of the fictional one presented in its narrative (granted, the investment bank portrayed has some eerie links to Lehman Brothers).  Names are not central to this film; what’s important is that it evokes the timeless theme that many corporations are largely unethical and exist within a very tight vacuum of perpetual self-interest: it’s economic Darwinism of the highest order.  With peoples’ lives in the balance – as millions, no doubt, were in 2008 – these institutions did whatever they could to maintain their greedy monetary pursuits.  In its own low key, but persuasive manner, MARGIN CALL depicts capitalist greed and excess as well as any other film that I've seen. 

It’s gripping that the film is largely apolitical and that it never really creates vile, black and white villains or spotless, sugar coated heroes.  Instead, it captures the particulars of how the financial crisis in ’08 came to be and, in turn, explores the players that participated in all of the eleventh hour strategizing and decision making to get themselves out of a horrific, but predictable mess.  In a way, MARGIN CALL presents the last 36 hours or so of normalcy for its investment firm, before the markets tanked and created damaging financial ripples that still can be felt to this day. 

The film begins one day before the collapse and deals almost ostensibly with the daily comings and goings of the aforementioned unnamed Wall Street investment firm.  Clearly, many of its workers are sensing with an inescapable dread that things are going belly up: eighty per cent of the work force is laid off, one of which is the very well liked and very experienced senior risk analyst, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci, gently authoritative here).  Eric takes the distressing news in an almost melancholic fashion, but before he leaves the offices with his personal effects, he hands a junior employee named Peter Sullivan (the decent Zachary Quinto, also the film’s co-producer) a USB drive of a project he’s been working on.  He asks him to take a look at it, but cryptically ends their conversation with an ominous warning: “Be careful.” 

While another junior employee, Seth (Penn Badgley) and senior trader Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) head off for a night of drinking, Peter stays behind to analyze the USB drive and later discovers that the trading will soon exceed the historical volatility levels used by the firm to calculate risk.  In short, it indicates near-future losses will exceed the firm’s total market capitalization, which would be economically calamitous.  In a panic, Peter calls Will back into the office, who in turn calls the head of sales, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) in the survey the projected damage.  This dire news finds its way up the corporate ladder to Sam’s boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and to the CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons).  Time is not on their side; with a scant two hours before the markets open, the firm’s higher ups decide that they need to unload billions of dollars of toxic sub-prime mortgage securities before it devastates the company.  Rogers, however, thinks this plan is deceitful and risky, believing that such a move would spread the risk throughout the financial world and, in turn, hurt the firm’s business relationships with its allies.   



On a negative, MARGIN CALL’s script contains ample financial-ese talk that will, no doubt, go right over a lot of viewer’s heads.  At least the film comments on it by having many characters asking their counterparts – almost speaking for viewers – to “Say things in plain English.”  Sometimes, characters shockingly stare into computer screens and talk endlessly about market/asset/risk assessment-volatility jargon that it kind of holds back the initial narrative thrust of the picture.  Thankfully, MARGIN CALL contains a rock solid and secure cast ensemble that not only makes their exchanges believable, but helps us get from one scene to the next without become too bored and impatient. 

In its own special way, it’s really the bravura performances that generate the film’s sense of unease and tension.  Tucci, as always, has a manner of proficiently inhabiting his roles with minimal fuss.  Simon Baker plays his devious and clever corporate big wig with a keen understatement.  Relative newcomer Zachary Quinto (who played Spock-redux in the recent STAR TREK reboot) is poised and nuanced in his crucial role.  And how nice is it to see Paul Bettany relinquish himself from so many regrettably awful sci-fi/post-apocalyptic horror films and inhabit his role of the firm’s senior trader with an icy detachment and sneaky charm?  He reminded me here of how deceptively good he is as an actor…when compelled to be. 

Two performances in particular, however, stand out as Oscar caliber, the first being from Jeremy Irons, who has not been this good in a role in years.  What I love about his work as Tuld is just how the actor immerses himself in this amoral SOB, but he does it discretely and, at times, with an amusingly sarcastic tongue (at one point, he asks Quinto’s Peter to explain to him what is happening as if he were “a small child or a golden retriever”).  Tuld, though, is no dummy: he seems to fully understand that financial markets are inherently unstable and unfixable, but he also comprehends that he needs to do whatever it takes – even if it means ruining countless lives – to secure his firm’s future; it’s one of the most cold and calculating performances of the year.   

The other performance of note is by Spacey, who perhaps is the audience’s empathetic portal into all of the film’s economic folly.  He appears to be a good and righteous figure and an uncommonly intelligent one in field populated by insensitive and dishonorable crooks.  In his own unassuming manner, Spacey is fantastic for evoking a man that has spent a lifetime trying to do what’s right in a business that’s so frequently unprincipled that it becomes almost doubly tragic when he sells out his own principles and values in the end to ensure that he has a place within a crumbling company (It is Rogers that has the dubious task of making the margin call and order his company to start dumping valueless holdings that will eventually deceive “his” customers).  The simple, but prevailing arc of his character is that, under times of great duress, any man can be bought.

The conclusion of MARGIN CALL is endlessly fascinating for how much it articulates its themes.  It involves one character dealing with his sick and cancer stricken dog that has now died, leaving him with the tearful task of burying it.  The intriguing angle here is that we have a man that has spent a life as an beleaguered corporate financial figure that has less concern for his bitter and demoralizing job than he does for his recently departed animal companion, which was the last love of his life.   It’s an unexpectedly touching way to end a grueling film like MARGIN CALL, but it disturbingly speaks to the ways that duplicitous and unethical firms chewed up employees and then spit them out in 2008, leaving them feeling as valueless as many stock portfolios were during those days.  I’ve seen horror thrillers in 2011 that were not as deeply unsettling as MARGIN CALL, which is why it works so assertively as a frightening reminder of the financial times we inhabit. 

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