A film review by Craig J. Koban December 4, 2011
2011, R, 109 mins.
2011, R, 109 mins.
Sam Rogers: Kevin Spacey / Will Emerson: Paul Bettany /
John Tuld: Jeremy Irons /
Peter Sullivan: Zachary Quinto /
Seth Bregman: Penn Badgley /
Jared Cohen: Simon Baker /
Mary Rogers: Mary McDonnell /
Sarah Robertson: Demi Moore /
Eric Dale: Stanley Tucci
Made for the
bargain bin price tag of just $3 million and shot in less than three
weeks, J.C. Candor’s MARGIN CALL – his directorial debut – is a
quietly thrilling and intense financial drama that frighteningly speaks to
our recent economic woes that have paralyzed North America.
Although the film is fictional, it heavily utilizes the real-life
2008 global financial collapse in its storyline to capture what it must
have been like for large corporations and businesses to deal with the
unavoidable capsizing of the market.
One thing the film does with an uncanny textbook precision is relay
how America’s financial institutions were utterly consumed with their
own gluttony first and the well being of their workers and the general
good of the public a distant second.
MARGIN CALL does
not involve a real corporation, nor does it even provide the name of the
fictional one presented in its narrative (granted, the investment bank
portrayed has some eerie links to Lehman Brothers).
Names are not central to this film; what’s important is
that it evokes the timeless theme that many corporations are largely
unethical and exist within a very tight vacuum of perpetual self-interest:
it’s economic Darwinism of the highest order.
With peoples’ lives in the balance – as millions, no doubt,
were in 2008 – these institutions did whatever they could to maintain
their greedy monetary pursuits. In
its own low key, but persuasive manner, MARGIN CALL depicts capitalist
greed and excess as well as any other film that I've seen.
that the film is largely apolitical and that it never really creates vile,
black and white villains or spotless, sugar coated heroes.
Instead, it captures the particulars of how the financial crisis in
’08 came to be and, in turn, explores the players that participated in
all of the eleventh hour strategizing and decision making to get
themselves out of a horrific, but predictable mess.
In a way, MARGIN CALL presents the last 36 hours or so of normalcy
for its investment firm, before the markets tanked and created damaging
financial ripples that still can be felt to this day.
The film begins
one day before the collapse and deals almost ostensibly with the daily
comings and goings of the aforementioned unnamed Wall Street investment
firm. Clearly, many of its workers are sensing with an inescapable
dread that things are going belly up: eighty per cent of the work force is
laid off, one of which is the very well liked and very experienced senior
risk analyst, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci, gently authoritative here).
Eric takes the distressing news in an almost melancholic fashion,
but before he leaves the offices with his personal effects, he hands a
junior employee named Peter Sullivan (the decent Zachary Quinto, also the
film’s co-producer) a USB drive of a project he’s been working on.
He asks him to take a look at it, but cryptically ends their
conversation with an ominous warning: “Be careful.”
junior employee, Seth (Penn Badgley) and senior trader Will Emerson (Paul
Bettany) head off for a night of drinking, Peter stays behind to analyze
the USB drive and later discovers that the trading will soon exceed the
historical volatility levels used by the firm to calculate risk.
In short, it indicates near-future losses will exceed the firm’s
total market capitalization, which would be economically calamitous.
In a panic, Peter calls Will back into the office, who in turn
calls the head of sales, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) in the survey the
projected damage. This dire
news finds its way up the corporate ladder to Sam’s boss, Jared Cohen
(Simon Baker) and to the CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons).
Time is not on their side; with a scant two hours before the
markets open, the firm’s higher ups decide that they need to unload
billions of dollars of toxic sub-prime mortgage securities before it
devastates the company. Rogers,
however, thinks this plan is deceitful and risky, believing that such a
move would spread the risk throughout the financial world and, in turn,
hurt the firm’s business relationships with its allies.
On a negative,
MARGIN CALL’s script contains ample financial-ese talk that will, no
doubt, go right over a lot of viewer’s heads.
At least the film comments on it by having many characters
asking their counterparts – almost speaking for viewers – to “Say
things in plain English.” Sometimes,
characters shockingly stare into computer screens and talk endlessly about
market/asset/risk assessment-volatility jargon that it kind of holds back
the initial narrative thrust of the picture.
Thankfully, MARGIN CALL contains a rock solid and secure cast
ensemble that not only makes their exchanges believable, but helps us get
from one scene to the next without become too bored and impatient.
In its own
special way, it’s really the bravura performances that generate the
film’s sense of unease and tension.
Tucci, as always, has a manner of proficiently inhabiting his roles
with minimal fuss. Simon
Baker plays his devious and clever corporate big wig with a keen
newcomer Zachary Quinto (who played Spock-redux in the recent STAR
TREK reboot) is poised and nuanced in his crucial role.
And how nice is it to see Paul Bettany relinquish himself from so
many regrettably awful sci-fi/post-apocalyptic horror films and inhabit
his role of the firm’s senior trader with an icy detachment and sneaky
charm? He reminded me here of
how deceptively good he is as an actor…when compelled to be.
in particular, however, stand out as Oscar caliber, the first being from
Jeremy Irons, who has not been this good in a role in years.
What I love about his work as Tuld is just how the actor immerses
himself in this amoral SOB, but he does it discretely and, at times, with
an amusingly sarcastic tongue (at one point, he asks Quinto’s Peter to
explain to him what is happening as if he were “a small child or a
golden retriever”). Tuld,
though, is no dummy: he seems to fully understand that financial markets
are inherently unstable and unfixable, but he also comprehends that he
needs to do whatever it takes – even if it means ruining countless lives
– to secure his firm’s future; it’s one of the most cold and
calculating performances of the year.
performance of note is by Spacey, who perhaps is the audience’s
empathetic portal into all of the film’s economic folly.
He appears to be a good and righteous figure and an uncommonly
intelligent one in field populated by insensitive and dishonorable crooks.
In his own unassuming manner, Spacey is fantastic for evoking a man
that has spent a lifetime trying to do what’s right in a business
that’s so frequently unprincipled that it becomes almost doubly tragic
when he sells out his own principles and values in the end to ensure that
he has a place within a crumbling company (It is Rogers that has the
dubious task of making the margin call and order his company to start
dumping valueless holdings that will eventually deceive “his”
customers). The simple, but
prevailing arc of his character is that, under times of great duress, any
man can be bought.
The conclusion of MARGIN CALL is endlessly fascinating for how much it articulates its themes. It involves one character dealing with his sick and cancer stricken dog that has now died, leaving him with the tearful task of burying it. The intriguing angle here is that we have a man that has spent a life as an beleaguered corporate financial figure that has less concern for his bitter and demoralizing job than he does for his recently departed animal companion, which was the last love of his life. It’s an unexpectedly touching way to end a grueling film like MARGIN CALL, but it disturbingly speaks to the ways that duplicitous and unethical firms chewed up employees and then spit them out in 2008, leaving them feeling as valueless as many stock portfolios were during those days. I’ve seen horror thrillers in 2011 that were not as deeply unsettling as MARGIN CALL, which is why it works so assertively as a frightening reminder of the financial times we inhabit.