Director: J.C. Chandor
Rated: R, Runtime: 105 mins.
Stars: Stanley Tucci and Kevin Spacey
A deftly paced morality tale of an economic system beyond control, Margin Call is a hauntingly subdued thriller, a boardroom drama that leaves the viewer with that enthralling type of exhaustion that follows a caffeine-fueled all-nighter.
Best of all, writer/director J.C. Chandor has assembled one of the sharpest screen ensembles in years — Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, and Simon Baker among others — as various-level players at a New York investment bank. The year is 2008, and a young risk analyst (Zachary Quinto) has just figured out that the nation’s collapsing housing market is about to turn the company’s investment portfolio — and the whole economic world — upside down. Turns out the equation the bank had been using to judge acceptable risk was audaciously out of whack. And as Baker’s smirking, confident, but ultimately clueless exec observes, “There are $8 trillion of paper around the world relying on that equation.”
In the hour or so that follows, we become witnesses to the flailing efforts of a steadily ascending sequence of suits to contain a runaway meltdown — or at least minimize the damage within their particular block of midtown Manhattan.
It is to Margin Call’s credit that it finds no easy villains — no human ones, anyway. Indeed, from the outset all we meet are victims of a monolithic system that seems to swat away any effort to tame it. We fade in to find 80 percent of the bank’s employees being fired — even before the coming economic tsunami is detected. Those who are left duly hunker down at their ever-glowing computer monitors and get back to selling products — the nature of which many of them seem to understand only in the dullest sense. In idle moments they obsess over how much their bosses earn, and their bosses in turn spend their millions as fast as they collect them, digging themselves ever deeper into economic holes of their own making — but always confident the business will grow to keep pace with their conspicuous consumption. The movers and shakers, as it turns out, are all “big picture” folks who seldom bother with the details of their megadeals (that’s convenient for us as viewers, because they’re forever asking the office grunts to explain the unfolding catastrophe “in plain English”).