Set in the high-stakes world of the financial industry, Margin Call is an entangling thriller involving the key players at an investment firm during the first 24-hours of the 2008 financial crisis. When an entry-level analyst unlocks information that could prove to be the downfall of the firm, a roller-coaster ride ensues as decisions both financial and moral catapult the lives of all involved to the brink of disaster. Writer/director J.C. Chandor's enthralling first feature is a stark and bravely authentic portrayal of the financial industry and its denizens as they confront the decisions that shape our global future.
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The year is 2008, the financial industry has been booming for years, and one of the leading financial companies is about to change everything. A fictionalized telling of the 24-hours that preceded the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis that was felt globally but began in the United States, Margin Call is a dramatic thriller. When a report is completed that shows the company facing losses that will cripple them plans are set in motion to decide just how they can get themselves out of the mess. People make decisions based on their own interests, and those of the firm, ignoring the greater good--if there can be a greater good considering the huge debacle one of the largest financial institutions has gotten themselves into.
With a cast that includes the talents of Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, and Stanley Tucci, Margin Call does not loosen its grip on the viewer for a moment. The stakes are high, and watching how everything plays out is fascinating. We all know what happened, but we have no idea just how it happened behind closed doors. Margin Call offers an opinion on the decisions that were made, why and how. The film may be plagued with too much insider jargon, causing confusion for the less knowledgable on the subjects at hand, but even this flaw does not damper the overall magnitude of the effect Margin Call demands.
Wall Street speaks its own language; the words are bigger, used outside of their normal context, and spoken in a way that the everyday viewer may not have a clue what they mean, or a phrase of them for that matter. This is the downfall of Margin Call's script, an otherwise excellent telling of the first 24-hours of the 2008 financial crisis that rippled across the world.
Screenwriter and Director J.C. Chandor's first feature knows what it is doing in terms of the story. Set as a thriller in one of the too-big-to-fail financial companies, the film expertly tracks the events that will lead to the 2008 economic crisis. Taking place over 24-hours, it all begins with a layoff. The cold and reserved human resources staff picks people out one-by-one, alerting them of their dismissal. While the layoffs are important, one is the most important--that of Eric Dale (Stanley Dale). Eric is in charge of risk management; he makes sure everything the firm does, trades, acquires, is in line with profitability. As Eric is about to leave in the elevator he hands fellow risk management employee Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) a flash drive and tells him to "take a look at it. Be careful." The foreshadowing of the events to follow will forever hang on his final two words, be careful.
Peter takes a look at the files and is able to piece together the final bit of information to make sense of it all, the results being dire of course. This is when the script relies too much on viewer knowledge of financial industry terms, and much is lost in the understanding of just why this situation is dire. Words and phrases like 'historical volatility' start filling the air, and the mind starts to boggle over what everyone is talking about. The ironic part about it is that every senior level executive, from Jeremy Iron's big-man John Tuld, Kevin Spacey's Sam Rogers, and Paul Bettany's Will Emerson asks Peter to explain to them like a layman, asked in a variety of fashions of course. Even Peter's layman approach is confusing, and you never quite understand just how the whole crisis happened--you can gather that the investments they have available to trade are no longer worth anything and the company will implode should this knowledge get out in the market. This conjecture could also be attributed to common knowledge of world events that your mind assumes is what Margin Call is referring to; and you may as well decide the fictitious company is Goldman Sachs now because you will undoubtedly think so at the end.
With a script so heavily embedded in the lingo of the industry it is examining Margin Call alienates anyone who cannot comprehend for the majority of the first half of the movie. When it focuses on the characters themselves, and the methods in which everyone is striving to save themselves and make it out of this whole thing alive things are very easy to relate to and in some cases find empathy. Not everyone at the firm knew what was going to happen. Some were warned, and they ignored the warnings. Others were as clueless as the cleaning lady who stands between senior executive Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) as they coyly discuss their plan of action for big-man John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). The cleaning woman stands there with a pleasantly oblivious look on her face as the two speak, the time creeps by as they pass floor after floor, and as a viewer you feel disgusted knowing this woman's life may never be the same again after tomorrow. She is main street, and wall street is about to screw her royally.
It is difficult to fault Margin Call's script for being too far into its subject matter because every other aspect, from character development, setting up the suspense over the crisis, interactions between the different executive and non-executive levels, is written perfectly. Everyone has a distinct voice, everyone changes as the realization of what they are about to do sets in, and everyone is completely out of place with their feelings on the matter. The capitalist voice of the too-big-to-fail company is heard loud and clear through Jeremy Irons John Tuld; a man without conscience it would seem, yet by the end he appears to be the one with the most sensical approach to the situation. J.C. Chandor has created an excellent film in Margin Call for a select group of viewers, he simply forgot not everyone knows what "brick by brick" means.
Margin Call has an exceptional cast bringing life to the characters. Starting from the top of the totem poll down there is John Tuld, played by Jeremy Irons. John is the man who rules it all. He flies in on a helicopter and everyone scrambles to make way. His presence is intense, and when he makes a decision it is final. John is a man to hate; a rich capitalist who cares more for the bottom-line of the company than the repercussions of his choices. He buys off his employees with promises of money, forcing them into taking the fall or acting against their own beliefs. Irons embodies the character of John Tuld and never lets a single doubt enter the viewer's mind as to whether he really believes in his character. Jeremy Irons is John Tuld, and he easily eats a meal with a view from the top of a skyscraper building as the world panics below--without missing a bite.
The next in line is Simon Baker's Jared Cohen. A considered youngster in charge of a bohemeth of a company Jared is hated amongst those below him. He wants things done, and done now. His mind is constantly churning with ideas on how to escape the inevitable, getting angry when those below him do not provide him with the answers he wants. Jared is the second man to hate in Margin Call, and Simon Baker plays a great villain. The memory of him shaving his face ever so gently, his hands steady all the way, while one of his employees cries over losing his job is detestable--and you love every moment of it.
Next up is Demi Moore as Sarah Robertson and Kevin Spacey as Sam Rogers. Two power players in the firm, one that keeps tracks of the numbers and the other in charge of the traders. Moore's part is relatively small compared to other characters but she makes a huge impact. When made aware of the situation, and being asked straightly if the report is correct by Jared Cohen, she keeps her calm, delivering every line without flinching but the fear in her eyes, and the slight quivering of doubt behind them is exceptional acting at its best. She also delivers a final line that makes your skin crawl; she means business, or else. Kevin Spacey's Sam Rogers is an interesting case. He is the moral fiber of the firm. At first he seems more concerned with his dog dying than the layoffs and impending crisis. As the layers of his character are revealed you realize there is greater emotion behind each and every action and word. Spacey delivers a performance of the highest calibre, and his character is what makes Margin Call a duplicity of empathetic emotions.
The final three main characters are important, but not as memorable wholly as the others even though they are present in most of the scenes. Zachary Quinto's Peter Sullivan is the man who has discovered the problem, and his dear in headlights looks bring to light just how out of his element he is in this mess. Penn Badgley's Seth is the youngest member of the firm involved and an emotional wreck by film's end. His overly concerned attitude with how much everyone makes develops his character as a man set on the money this industry provides, and that will prove true. Then there is Paul Bettany as Will Emerson, an integral role in keeping the story grounded in where it all began, risk management, but Will does not make a great impression. Stanley Tucci's brief scenes as Eric Dale are much more interesting, especially when Eric Dale becomes the man everyone wants to locate--he is after all the one who told Peter Sullivan to "be careful."
Margin Call may be about the crash of a financial system, but it is the performers behind the characters that give life to the film. This is a dream ensemble, where everyone plays their part to the best of their ability, and to the acclaim of the viewer. You'll remember the thrill and suspense of watching the events unfold because the actors elevated their characters in the midst of chaos to outshine even the devastating backdrop of economic meltdown.
October 21, 2011