Writer/director J.C. Chandor makes the kind of debut that assures we’ll be seeing more from him, and that’s a very good thing. Part “Wall Street,” part “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Margin Call” takes us back to 2008, just before the economic collapse, and throws a dozen or so terrific actors into a situation where, over the course of one very long night, they will face the end of their world as they know it — and an impossible choice.
Things are already bad at the 107 year-old Manhattan-based investment firm, bad enough that specialists who know how to manage those being unceremoniously laid off have been brought in to do just that. Eric (Stanley Tucci) works in risk management and has been with the company 19 years. Today he’s been given six months severance at half pay and a humiliating escort out the door. Before he reaches the lobby, his passwords have changed and his company phone’s been shut off. Before Eric leaves, though, he hands a thumb drive to one of his young protégés who wasn’t let go, Peter (Zachary Quinto), a 28 year-old Ph.D. graduate who decided to trade in the opportunity to be an actual rocket scientist for the money and action on “The Street.”
Thinking the worst is over after the layoffs, those who remain are able to exhale and get back to the business of buying and selling. But this is just the beginning. After work, Peter opens Eric’s thumb drive and discovers that his mentor was close to finishing a risk assessment report on the firm’s current holdings. Curious, Peter finishes the report and is horrified to learn that the kind of worst case scenario no one ever dreams of is not only possible but inevitable.
To be sure his calculations are correct, Peter calls Seth (Peter Badgely) , a 23 year-old hollow man-child obsessed with money, and Will (Paul Bettany), a senior trader who could walk out of a mine field without mussing up his hair, back into the office only to have them confirm that the sky is indeed falling.
Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey, who gives the performance of his life) is the lion of the firm, a 34-year veteran whose life is so empty he spends his evenings at an animal hospital with a dog he’s keeping alive at the cost of a thousand dollars a day. It takes some convincing, but sometime just before midnight, Sam’s back in the office looking at the numbers with a cold chill creeping down his spine.
Up the corporate ladder we and our cast of characters climb. Next up is Sam’s superior, Jared (Simon Baker) and Sarah (a terrific Demi Moore), the firm’s chief risk officer. Finally, a helicopter dramatically delivers the company CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who gathers everyone around a conference table and then asks Peter to explain things to him as though he were a small child or golden retriever. Tuld might not be interested in the dit-dit of his own company’s complicated financial portfolios, but blood-letting he gets, and once he understands what the firm is up against, he has no problem laying out their options.
A Faustian bargain is the only way out. You see, the firm (an obvious stand-in for Lehman Brothers, whose CEO was named Fuld not Tuld ) is underwater with toxic holdings (that I assume are mortgages), but purely by chance and luck they have information no one else does. This means they either can do the honorable thing, hold on to their worthless holdings and go down with the rest of Wall Street, or they can unload what they know is worthless on unsuspecting buyers who have no idea what’s coming. This also means that their poison pill will be remembered as the one that started the economic collapse. Either way, their firm is finished. But a one-day fire sale before The Street catches on to the fact that this is a fire sale at least means the individual players come out whole.
“Margin Call” is without a doubt one of the finest films of the year. The superb cast has never been better, the screenplay deserves an Oscar nomination, and the direction is impeccable. Most of the story might be set within the confines of a single building, but the rich cinematography and elegant production design make that a non-issue. And just when you think the skyline of Manhattan has been photographed in every conceivable way, cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco gives the city a foreboding feel, a city of the damned who don’t yet know they’re damned.
Most impressive is the dialogue. Along with Tuld, Sam also asks Peter to explain what’s happening in layman’s terms. At first I interpreted this as a somewhat lazy conceit, an excuse for exposition in order to tell the audience what’s happening. But even after two explanations, I still didn’t fully understand, and that was the idea. The fact that Tuld and Sam hold positions of extraordinary authority over a large part of the American economy but have no idea how the sausage gets made is part of the horror story. As far as the audience, we know everything we need to — the moral dilemma and the consequences either way.
Director Chandor goes nowhere near politics. His film is neither an indictment of Wall Street or capitalism. This is a fictional human story set in and around an all-too-real event. The characters are believable, and the choices they ultimately make are for them to live with and for us to judge.
Yesterday I wrote that with rare exceptions, the independent film genre has become a parody of itself. Had I not already seen “Margin Call,” I might not have mentioned the exceptions.
“Margin Call” is available at Amazon.
Christian Toto’s interview with the director is here.