Margin Call has been described as a thriller, but you could also call it a chamber drama. It contains thrills and suspense, yes, but not from chases or murder plots. The only gun barrel that the characters stare down is a metaphorical one, albeit loaded with something scarier than a bullet: the collapse of their financial institution, and perhaps the whole country’s economy. Crime and betrayal run rampant but don’t manifest physically.
We’ve already seen the recent economic meltdown explained in documentaries like Inside Job. Now, writer/director J.C. Chandor sets out to explore the psyche of the people behind it. He portrays them with a certain degree of understanding, but makes no excuses for their irresponsibility. His characters are human, often sympathetic, and we can see how they’ve reached the point they’re at in their careers. But they deflect blame, let others take the fall for their mistakes, and make small gestures to cover their asses without actually doing anything to rein in problems.
In his feature debut, Chandor shows a knack for smart dialogue and telling details. Sometimes the characters talk too much, but it’s an impressive cast doing the talking.
The film journeys through 30 hours of nonstop work that begins with routine layoffs and quickly veers toward disaster. Penn Badgley and Zachary Quinto play Seth and Peter, two entry-level employees who are still learning the workings of the business. They survive the layoffs, but their boss, played by Stanley Tucci, does not. While security escorts him out, he passes Peter a project he’s been working on. Peter stays late to work on it and makes an alarming discovery about the company’s assets. In short, they’re worthless and will soon self-destruct.
Paul Bettany plays their manager, ranked between them and Tucci’s character. He also serves as their mentor. He prepares them for the crisis and explains how corporate politics work. Kevin Spacey plays the head of their department, Sam, and Simon Baker his superior, Jared, who along with his underling, Sarah (Demi Moore), oversaw the scheme that is now crumbling.
Spacey kicks off his performance with a big, upbeat post-layoff speech, essentially congratulating his remaining staff for surviving the slashing and telling them to feel superior to those who were let go. But his character’s facade soon cracks to reveal a quieter, resigned man. He doesn’t seem to like his job much; he simply has the misfortune of being good at it.
As a director, Chandor wobbles between elegance and stiffness. He’s thoroughly competent, resisting the urge to use visual gimmicks to compensate for the lack of action. At the same time, the material sometimes lacks verve. As in his screenplay, his directorial strength lies in his exactness. He shows full confidence by letting the actors roll with his long stretches of dialogue. When the characters are waxing philosophical on the rooftop in the middle of the night, he lets the dreams floating along the New York City skyline speak for themselves. When key, tense decisions are being made in the board room, the suspense ratchets up via character interaction.
If anything, he keeps things a bit too precise. The film never quite unshackles itself from its game plan. It’s mannered and ultimately a little sterile. Even the much-built-up arrival of Jeremy Irons as the feared big boss feels more regulated than volatile—which is especially odd when you consider how Irons steals the show with merciless bravado and the kind of domineering presence you’d expect from a CEO.
Margin Call is like a well-rehearsed play. You don’t get the impression that anything would happen differently if the actors performed it again tomorrow. The style works because, in the world these characters have created for themselves, everything that happens is inevitable. It’s clear the track is mangled, but no one can stop the train.
As Bernstein says in Citizen Kane, “It’s no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money.” Margin Call is about people who got into their jobs for a comfortable life, to spend conspicuously and not struggle. When a a character says, “This is all I ever wanted to do,” it’s met not with agreement or understanding, but with sad silence. Most of these people didn’t do what they wanted to do—Quinto’s Peter studied to be a rocket scientist but went to Wall Street for the bigger paycheck, for example—if they wanted to do anything.
The characters populating Margin Call find no liberation in making more money in a year than some do their entire lives. Seth carries the thought of salaries around like a ball and chain. He is constantly wondering how much more people make when they go up a rung on the corporate ladder. In one great monologue, Bettany explains how easily he spends $2.5 million in a year.
These people work in a profession in which they’re rewarded for playing fast and carelessly with other people’s lives. And that reward comes whether they were gambling within the small scale of cutthroat corporate politics or the large scale of millions of people’s retirement funds.