Review: Margin Call (2011)

Director: J.C. Chandor

****

The greatest and most catastrophic of events can start from the smallest and slightest of errors and miscalculations. When trying to get a grasp on the current economic crisis, a little perspective is required. Blowing up a balloon of debt and overpriced product is going to result in a horrific kaboom. In Margin Call, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) realizes it, but gets fired from MBS Investments before getting a chance to reveal it. Passing on his incomplete data to his junior Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) before leaving, Dale warns, “Be careful”. By the time Margin Call is over, it’s clear that it’s far too late to start being careful.

J.C. Chandor’s feature debut as both director and writer is a startlingly intelligent, complex and confident calling card. Most of its audience may have next to no knowledge about how investment or risk management works (this critic included), but Margin Call refuses to tone down the jargon, and is all the better for it. As Sullivan calls in his colleagues Bregman (Penn Badgely), Emerson (Paul Bettany, accent indeterminate) and his boss Rogers (Kevin Spacey) to analyze the data, one can cut through the jargon to the panic and exasperation on their faces. Quinto’s eyebrows arch, Spacey’s jowls drop and it’s not long before the bigwigs are coming in. Senior executives Cohen (Simon Baker) and Robertson (Demi Moore) begin a bitchfight to the bottom, whilst MBS head Tuld (Jeremy Irons) looks on in bafflement at the hell that is about to befall them all. Despite the fact that all these characters earn millions and enjoy the trappings of their gains, their sudden loss of employment and reputation reduces them to an identifiable human level. By reducing the start of the crisis to a 24-hour one-company microcosm, it make the recession more understandable and more unbelievable simultaneously. These multi-millionaires were supposed to be in charge! Who fell asleep at the wheel?! All take some blame, but the game ultimately becomes about who takes more than their share of it. The dialogue is replete with soliloquies and monologues, which gives the actors room to show off and flourish, and they seize it with both hands. Tucci, Quinto and Irons particularly impress amongst a generally engaging ensemble.

Given the grounded nature of the material, it’s not surprising to find that Margin Call is not a particularly cinematic experience. The cinematography and score are fine (though the sound mix sometimes overwhelms dialogue with music), but lack a Fincher-esque punch. Margin Call lives or dies on its cast, and may feel more at home on the small screen, but its message and clarity of thought deserve to be seen with a crowd, and its intricacies should be dissected over wine and good company afterwards. Margin Call offers much to chew on in a modest but distinct way.

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