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Margin Call: Money or Morals

Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore occupy Wall Street in new financial thriller

spinner image Zachary Quinto as Peter Sullivan in 'Margin Call'
Zachary Quinto as Peter Sullivan in Margin Call .
Photo courtesy Walter Thomson/Roadside Attractions

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.

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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”).

As the wide-eyed young analyst, Quinto is the film’s focus, but Kevin Spacey as Sam, his conflicted boss, is Margin Call’s heart. From his first appearance we don’t know quite what to make of Sam — we find him weeping in his corner office as his staff is being eviscerated via downsizing; but we soon learn he’s crying not for them, but for his dying dog. At least, that’s what he says. Throughout the film, Spacey and his screenwriter/director play a nifty game of hide-and-seek with Sam, who is alternately visionary, cowardly, principled and mercenary. His inherent contradictions echo the system he represents, a great engine of universal prosperity; a cynical exercise in self-enrichment.

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For all its passages of exposition, as the characters explain to each other — and to us — just why the sky is falling, Margin Call is largely about silences. Bravely, almost recklessly, Chandor allows his characters to fall into prolonged periods of contemplation; staring out windows over the blinking blackness of Manhattan, searching each others’ faces for shards of revelation, gazing into space, their thoughts played out through the exemplary cast’s expressive eyes. It’s dangerous territory for any filmmaker; mishandled, you end up in a bad parody of a third-rate 1960s art film. But Chandor, aided no doubt by the accumulated talent and experience of his actors, makes virtually every silent moment beat true. It’s especially the case in a truly remarkable scene, about an hour in, when the company’s CEO, played with smiling, snarling bravado by Jeremy Irons, brings a 3 a.m. board meeting to a screeching halt by walking to the window, staring into the night and saying … absolutely nothing. In that moment, we see what he sees: nothing but inky, death-like darkness.

In Margin Call’s final frames — and even after the final fadeout, Nathan Larson’s ingeniously spare, almost subliminal musical score gives way to the sound of a shovel digging … digging … digging. It would be nice to think it’s the sound of a society burying its past to start anew … but more likely it’s the crunching of doomed industriousness, a world working its way ever deeper into a hole from which it can never escape.

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