by Raj Ranade
The big running joke in J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (playing at the Kentucky Theatre), a fictional account of an Lehman-Brothers-esque investment bank on the eve of the 2008 market crash, is that most of the employees at the film’s financial firm are as confused about what their company does as your average 99-Percenter might be. A low-level egghead (Zachary Quinto) investigating the firing of his boss (Stanley Tucci) is the one who first discovers that the company’s bets on subprime mortgages threaten to bankrupt half of Wall Street. When he attempts to explain this to superiors, however, he’s told to speak in “plain English” (Jeremy Irons’ CEO asks him to explain as he might “to a young child, or a golden retriever”).
It’s not that these executives are stupid or incompetent – the scheme they eventually devise to save their skins has a ruthless efficiency – but the skills that got them where they are have less to do with mortgages than with Machiavelli. They’re masters of personal politics, and when things start to fall apart, it’s certainly not broader consequences that they’re thinking about. Margin Call is a film of hastily built alliances, scapegoating, and other desperate gambits for personal survival – the voices of reason, like Kevin Spacey’s circumspect head trader, cry out loudly enough about the global aftermath of this local focus, but the self-serving leaders here fail to see the concrete forest for the skyscrapers.
It’s a forceful point that Chandor puts across in his surprisingly assured debut as a writer/director, but Margin Call is no heated screed. The eeriest thing about this thriller is its devotion to calm in order to slowly build dread, a depiction of financial apocalypse through coolly delivered monologues and careful understatement.
Chandor is very talented at constructing both of these, though he’s less adept at knowing how they work together. Tucci, for example, knocks one monologue out of the park about his past as a civil engineer and how his decades in finance have resulted in almost no tangible benefit to anyone. But this is a point made about as effectively by the hushed reaction during a board meeting after Quinto’s character reveals his past career as an astrophysicist – an admission and a pregnant pause saying about as much as several minutes of dialogue would otherwise. It sometimes seems like Chandor might have been better off committing to a more theatrical indictment of the industry as suggested by the monologues or a more realistic version based on subtle detail – the mix is a bit of an awkward combination.
But it’s churlish to complain too much when the actors doing the monologuing are as good as they are here. Spacey, who has often played avatars of aggressive, amoral greed in the past, is better than he’s been in years as one of the firm’s more remorseful figures – his expressions and shoulders seem bowed by years of passive participation in schemes he knows are wrong. And Demi Moore gives a career-best performance here as the firm’s sole female executive, who not coincidentally becomes one of the first targets for the chopping block – Moore makes years of personal sacrifice and professional ostracization weigh on her every gesture.
Some of the more rabid Occupy-Wall-Streeters have criticized Margin for daring to look with empathy towards those responsible for the financial mayhem of the past few years, instead of solely spewing unadulterated outrage at them. But what Chandor has done here is really even more damning than that would be. Chandor makes clear that these were not sociopathic bloodsuckers bent on tanking the economy, but people who largely knew the kind of consequences their actions might have, but went along with the grand scheme. Even Spacey’s relative good guy, after chewing out his boss in a climactic monologue, is ultimately unable to make a clean break with an industry he has come to loathe. Why? “I need the money,” he says. Don’t we all?