The latest in a string of dramas seeking to take the pulse of white-collar America, “Margin Call” is a methodical, coolly absorbing boardroom thriller set on the eve of the 2008 economic collapse. Unfolding over a tense 36-hour period at a Wall Street investment firm where drastic damage-control measures are afoot, J.C. Chandor’s precocious writing-directing debut is fastidious, smart and more than a bit portentous as it probes the human costs of unchecked greed. While its talky approach to unhappy subject matter poses clear commercial risks, this impressively cast picture should capitalize on interest from discerning, primarily younger-skewing audiences.
A wide-angle shot of Gotham’s Financial District underscores the film’s fish-tank-like view of the junior hotshots and big-time brokers moving through the corridors of a nameless investment bank. An ominous tone is struck immediately, as efficiency experts are brought in to lay off about 80% of the company’s workforce, the chief casualty being top risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Among those left standing is Dale’s whip-smart protege, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, one of 15 credited producers), who, after crunching some numbers, realizes that a looming real-estate crisis spells disaster for the company and its soon-to-be-worthless assets.
In a series of chilly yet incrementally more dramatic episodes over the course of a single night, Sullivan’s justifiable panic runs up the chain of command — from his new boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), and top exec Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), onward through the upper echelons inhabited by Rogers’ smug superior (Simon Baker) and the firm’s chief risk officer (Demi Moore). By 4 a.m., charismatic CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) is flown in by helicopter to hear confirmation of the grim news and issue an equally grim directive. In a rivetingly played scene, Tuld says the firm has no choice but to liquidate its mortgage securities by the end of the next trading day — a strategy meant to salvage a company that nevertheless looks as doomed as the millions of Americans who will be screwed over in the process.
The escalating stakes allow for a multifaceted portrait of how each of these power players responds to a moral and logistical dilemma — a bold approach, insofar as it invites viewers to identify with some of the primary engineers of the ongoing crisis. The actors meet the challenge head-on: Quinto and Penn Badgley offer sharply contrasting studies of young guns trying to survive in a high-powered industry; Moore is bitterly restrained as a woman struggling to be heard in a male-dominated context; and Irons tosses off delectable bon mots as the imperious chief executive. Best of all is Spacey, whose ability to hide his true feelings behind a veneer of sarcasm makes Rogers the most intriguingly torn figure in the steadily mounting drama.
There isn’t much about this culture that escapes Chandor’s cynical eye, and he finds room within the story’s sleek timeframe to reference the less savory lifestyle perks to which so many Wall Streeters are accustomed, as well as the fact that those who earn the most are often those who know the least. “Speak to me in plain English,” Tuld orders his inferiors, which shrewdly allows the script to spell out complex financial concepts (i.e. “historical volatility index limits”) in audience-friendly terms.
In depicting the cruel machinery of mass job termination, “Margin Call” brings to mind such recent portraits of the newly unemployed as “Up in the Air” and “The Company Men,” while its portrait of corporate malfeasance and corrupt securities trading nods in the ripped-from-the-headlines direction of “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” In such varied cinematic company, Chandor adopts an acutely focused, even-keeled stylistic approach, maintaining a low dramatic temperature yet trusting attentive viewers to hang on every word.
Yet while the words themselves are often delicious, the film eventually reaches the point where one wishes it had left more unsaid. While it never becomes overtly didactic, the meticulous, slightly airless approach doesn’t offer much in the way of lingering subtext. Especially in the overworked final reels, the characters are too prone to spell out their points of view or ruminate on how capitalism and office culture have corrupted and devalued the once-proud American tradition of hard work.
Formally, the film is a real pleasure, as d.p. Frank G. DeMarco (shooting expertly on the Red camera) bathes the executive suites in oppressively literal shadows, computer screens glowing in the darkness like neon-blue jellyfish. Images of New York at night, accompanied by the ambient drone of Nathan Larson’s synth score, create an intoxicating mood, despite a few too many time-lapse shots of the Manhattan skyline.