Margin Call, the first feature from writer-director J.C. Chandor, is an odds-beater in nearly every conceivable way. It makes finance dramatically involving. It manages not to sink under combined weight of its well-known cast. And it manages to craft strangely human characters out of some of the most deplorable people on the planet—if only just and unevenly so, which is probably a good thing. It purports to tell the story of the day—and night—when speculation in the mortgage markets started to fall apart, leading to the financial disaster that we all know too well.
The story begins fairly early in the day, when 80 percent of the work force at an investment firm is let go. Among these is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the firm’s senior risk analyst with nearly 20 years in the job, and probably the most likable character in the film. He desperately wants to finish the project he’s working on, but the hard and fast “quick kill” of the firing team summarily escort him out of the building. Before he leaves, however, he passes a flash-drive to a younger (read: cheaper) analyst, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who hasn’t been fired, telling him, “Be careful.” Intrigued and a little alarmed, Peter hangs around the office after hours and starts working from the information contained on the drive, coming to the terrible realization of the disaster that’s about to take hold.
He calls his co-worker Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley, Easy A) and has him and their immediate boss Jared Cohen (Simon Baker, TV’s The Mentalist) return to the office that night. From there the bad news travels upwards to Cohen’s boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), and then to another higher-up risk analyst, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), and the main boss on site, Sam Rogers (an impossibly good Kevin Spacey). Finally, the CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) has to be brought in. Here is a man with a demeanor at once self-deprecating (“Speak to me as you would a small child, or a golden retriever”) and menacing. It is perhaps the kind of role that only Irons could play.
As the story unfolds, what is surprising is how little most of these people actually to know about the business at hand. The only ones who seem to grasp what’s happening until it’s explained to them in simplified form are Peter and Sam—and Eric would, too, of course, but his termination was so complete that his cell phone was cancelled before he hit the door, and he’s hard to find. What we discover, however, is that almost none of these people went into this business intentionally, but rather drifted into it. And many higher up the chain left the running of things to others—asking no questions as long as the money was rolling in. Now, of course, that’s all changed.
The only possible out is the completely unethical one of selling off all these worthless investments before anyone else finds out. The ethical Sam is against it, but Tuld is adamant—and we all know how it plays out, but that makes it no less compelling and maddening. And yet, a good many of the characters are allowed to be, if not exactly sympathetic, then not entirely unsympathetic as their fraudulent empire crumbles around them. Chandor has not only created these characters, but he has also fleshed each of them out with witty, barbed dialogue, giving them an even greater illusion of reality. I think this was wise. Without any sense of some kind of humanity beneath the surface, Margin Call would be unwatchable rather than entertaining. Rated R for language.