On-Demand Review: Margin Call is a sleek look at economic collapse

Margin Call, along with Melancholia, are two movies that are helping reshape the distribution model of otherwise limited-release films. With the help of outlets like Amazon, iTunes and other VOD (Video On Demand, get used to it) services, they are reaching audiences that arguably would never have seen them otherwise.

Of course, it helps that both of these films are exceptionally well done. Margin Call is about the beginning of the financial crisis, examining the movers and shakers responsible for kick-starting it. Its keen examination of this world driven purely by gambling is shot in smooth, sophisticated darkness. Every board room is glossed over, though every frame conveys a sense of dread and impending doom (the same can be said of Melancholia).

Writer/director J.C. Chandor has created a Wall Street equivalent of The Social Network, examining this largely alien world with a deep sense of mood and a keen ear for this specific trade’s language. Simply put, his original screenplay is one of the best of 2011, and it would not be without the terrific ensemble delivering it. Margin Call manages to find the humanity buried beneath such rotten business practices. However, though it is a chronicle of what exactly caused this economic upheaval, it is not putting those responsible on trial.

This is a fictionalized investment bank, a Sterling-Cooper-esque entity in an otherwise very real trading world. Though the company is never mentioned by name, it’s hard not to imagine the 24-hour time-frame and the events within it as somewhat realistic. Low-level analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) discovers the troubling financial news left behind by his recently-fired boss (Stanley Tucci). The company he works for has been packaging and selling faulty mortgages, though Chandor thankfully does not spend the entire time explaining this.

In fact, Chandor makes a point to note that many of the executives do not understand the logistics of what exactly is bringing their company down. When Jeremy Irons enters as the biggest of the big-wigs John Tuld about halfway through, he asks Stevens to explain it to him as if he were a young child. The screenplay does not make anyone look like a fool, though. When he and the other executives acknowledge their own ignorance, it is not tongue-and-cheek; when these people make decisions, they know the consequences. Margin Call is a trickle-down spiral toward economic ruin. The higher-ups are essentially paid to fire the lower ones who are telling them about the crisis.

Between Stevens and Tuld lie several other key players, from the analyst overseer Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) to his henchmen Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and a couple of other rungs on the ladder (Demi Moore and Simon Baker). Chandor does not pay too much attention to the bigger names, except maybe Spacey, whose character grapples with the situation more than any of the others. He guides them through this fast-paced day without rushing and without lingering — a difficult task given the subject matter. The first two-thirds are plotting and the last third is an execution in more ways than one.

The stone faces of these people stick because this is not a satire. They sit, bicker and decide on the higher floors of their skyscrapers and make decisions that will blanket the world around them with shadow and uncertainty. It’s given an appropriately dark and moody visual style, which also evokes David Fincher’s Facebook movie.

The Social Network
was about the volatile beginning of an empire, though, and this film is about the volatile end of one. Some of these men, like Spacey’s Sam Rogers, feel guilty about dumping all these faulty mortgages on an unsuspecting public. Others, like Bettany’s Will Emerson, say they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Chandor is willing to explore that darker side of the logic, painting a vast canvas of mixed feelings and differing opinions. None of that matters in the end, though, as people are gradually bought off and kept quiet.

Eric Dale (Tucci) is fired at the beginning and seems pretty adamant about sticking it to the company when asked to come back and stay on the down low. He is sucked back in with the offer of just more than $170,000 an hour to simply sit in a chair and wait for the fire sale to end. The poignant conversation he shares with Demi Moore’s Sarah Robertson — the one who allegedly was responsible for his termination — about the pointlessness of all this is one of several ways that Chandor conveys that message.

Even Tuld, the man on top, remarks that money is simply something meaningless that we print so that we don’t have to kill each other. Irons’ slick way around his sentences recalls a British version of Daniel Plainview. If the whole movie were devoted to him, it might very well be a Wall Street retelling of There Will Be Blood. Thankfully, though, it is something wildly different and inventive. Chandor has captured the essence of what caused that 2008 economic meltdown without condescending or forgiving. This is a startlingly competent debut feature with an extremely gifted ensemble cast; a movie where people embrace the end of their world fully aware of the consequences. It’d make a great VOD double-feature with Melancholia.

Grade: B+