REVIEW: Tense, Timely Margin Call Evokes Occupy Wall Street Outrage
Margin Call isn't the first film to peer into the moneyed, aspirationally heartless world of finance, and it's not going to be the last, but it's got a fair shot at being the one with the most masterful timing. J.C. Chandor's feature debut aims to offers insight into the mindset of bankers poised to plunge the country into the 2008 economic crisis because of their own reckless conduct, and it reaches screens as Occupy Wall Street has spread across the U.S. and internationally, fueled in part by outrage about a lack of accountability in the financial and corporate world. The film's not an indictment or a satire -- it's a tense but contemplative exploration of being on the other side of one of those mirrored skyscraper windows, of being in a precarious place of privilege, power and, most important of all, carefully guarded remove.
Margin Call unfolds over 24 hours, give or take, and it rarely ventures out of the Manhattan office building in which its unnamed firm is based. When it does, it's to head to other protective bubbles -- the warmly lit interior of an upscale bar, the glide of a town car making its way through nighttime traffic, a walk around the block with headphones on. As, over the course of the night, higher and higher-ups within the company are called in like escalating bosses in a video game, they appear as if by magic, immaculate in businesswear at three in the morning. The highest-up of all, the reptilian John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), is flown in via helicopter to land on top of the building, as if he's reached a point in his life and his career where his feet need not ever touch the ground.
"It's not a prison," one character scoffs when another asks if he can go out for some air, but Margin Call makes it clear that membership here is a type of trap, one never more obvious than when you're cast out. The film begins with layoffs, HR representatives circling a floor of people trying their best to concentrate on their work and pretend it's just another day while awaiting the dreaded tap on the shoulder. Eric Dale (a very good Stanley Tucci) is let go that day, escorted out by security per corporate mandate, his phone already shut off. On his way down, he hands what he was working on to junior analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who plugs in some holes in Eric's research and uncovers the fact that the firm's been working outside its own risk algorithms for the last few days and is poised to lose everything in an increasingly unstable market headed for a crash.
Margin Call's high-powered cast -- Kevin Spacey oversees the trading floor, Paul Bettany is his right hand man, and Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Penn Badgley and Aasif Mandvi fill other roles up and down the corporate ladder -- adds to the seductive air of the whole environment. These people are painfully smart and so sleek in their pricey suits, and if they all seem to be miserable workaholics, well, that's the price of being on top of the world. Bettany delivers a monologue explaining how he spent his $2.5 million salary last year, on a convertible, on his mortgage, on clothes and restaurants and booze and hookers (the last two he's discovered he can write off as "entertainment"), while standing on top of the building overlooking the city and smoking an illicit cigarette. It doesn't sound like a moment of triumph, but rather one of disillusionment -- it's just more money in your pocket to be spent.
There's a touch of wish fulfillment to Margin Call's introspections -- we'd like to believe there's a sense of regret, or shame, or emptiness to this world. But it's hard to find it wholly plausible that when an underling hears his boss' outlandishly high salary he'd observe "that's fucked up" instead of just imagining the life he'd lead if it were his and thinking of it as something to aspire to. Characters pause to deliver monologues every once in a while, and while the aforementioned one from Bettany and a similarly number-filled rant from Tucci are memorable, another from Irons is awfully on the nose, as are exchanges like this: "It's like a dream." "I don't know, seems like we may have just woken up."
But these are minor quibbles -- Margin Call's strengths are of mood and the slick surfaces of things, and these elements are haunting long after the credits have rolled. How do you decide to screw over all of your colleagues and the rest of the world? By committing yourself to the koan that it's just business, it's just business, it's just business, it's just the way things are and always have been. "You have to believe you're necessary," one character insists, before telling another he's certain to get fired. How do you let these things happen to everyone else? By avoiding being everyone else for as long as you possibly can.