Margin Call-attachment0

Margin Call

Movie Information

The Story: The fictionalized (barely) story of how Wall Street was brought down by speculation in the mortgage market. The Lowdown: Material which should be anything but compelling turns out to be captivating -- if disturbing -- entertainment that does right by every member of its high-powered cast.
Score:

Genre: Drama
Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore
Rated: R

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

20 thoughts on “Margin Call

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be scheduled to open here. Perhaps if it performs well States-side, it might encourage antipodean screenings.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’ll be surprised because it’s a small release. It’s doing pretty well, but it’s only in 170 theaters or thereabouts.

  3. Xanadon't

    Executives in neckties shouting at one another across conference tables is high on my list of least favorite film genres. I put off watching Network for years for no real reason except this. Hmm..

  4. Ken Hanke

    Executives in neckties shouting at one another across conference tables is high on my list of least favorite film genres.

    Why do you think I was surprised that I liked this?

    I put off watching Network for years for no real reason except this.

    Yeah, well, it’s from a Paddy Chayefsky script, meaning if it was set in a monastery they’d still be shouting at each other. Actually, this has much less shouting than you might expect.

  5. Andrew Leal

    Yeah, well, it’s from a Paddy Chayefsky script, meaning if it was set in a monastery they’d still be shouting at each other

    I laughed audibly for over half a minute on that one. They could have called it “Mass Hysteria.”

  6. Jeremy Dylan

    Executives in neckties shouting at one another across conference tables is high on my list of least favorite film genres.

    I couldn’t disagree with that more. People in neckties shouting at each other is pretty high up on my list of favourites – particularly if Aaron Sorkin is writing them or they’re middle aged British character actors.

  7. Dionysis

    The last film I recall that featured executives in neckties yelling at each other was Glengarry Glen Ross and I thought that was a good flick. This sounds even better. And I can’t remember exactly, but I believe Kevin Spacey was in that as well.

  8. Xanadon't

    Well, salesmen mostly. Which isn’t totally a case of ‘splitting hairs’ in that at least for me I imagine there’s more of an identifiable desperation at work that’s easier to relate to. And less built-in cynicism.

    I too enjoyed Glengarry Glen Ross (which may have more to do with Mamet than the performances). And yes, your memory serves you well, it also featured Spacey.

    • Dionysis

      You’re right, for the most part they were salesmen (I guess that Alec Baldwin was an executive, though). I really need to see it again. I recall going out with several friends to see it, and then spending three plus hours in a restaurant afterwards discussing the film, something I’ve rarely done.

  9. Xanadon't

    and then spending three plus hours in a restaurant afterwards discussing the film, something I’ve rarely done.

    Nice. I don’t think I’ve done exactly that kind of thing since Babel. Or maybe something similar with Crash. Anyway, not often enough.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I have nothing against such things (though none of the movies cited would have moved me to it), but for the most part I simply don’t like to leap right into a discussion of a movie immediately after seeing it. I think I was more likely to do it years ago. I suspect my taste for it dimmed when I got to a point where folks tended to want a quick review while I was walking out of the theater.

  11. Dionysis

    “for the most part I simply don–Ęt like to leap right into a discussion of a movie immediately after seeing it.”

    With enough alcohol involved (wine, of course) one can leap into a discussion about most anything, whether it is coherent or not.

  12. trex

    I loved it. One incredible film with a cast to die for. This will go on my list of the best of the year and I am sure the Academy will over look it. Jeremy Irons is so good he could read the yellow pages and make them intense.

  13. Hank

    I think you missed a connection, Cohen’s boss is not Will Emerson – Emerson is far below, he works for Sam.

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