Margin Call, 2011.
Directed by J.C. Chandor.
Starring Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci.
During the first twenty-four hours of the worldwide financial crisis, key members of one large investment bank try to stop their world from imploding.
Margin Call, a film based on what happens at one international bank that discovers it’s not exactly on steady footing, is the first feature directed by J.C. Chandor. And considering it’s his first outing, there should be a lot more to look forward to in the future.
What could be a boring, albeit true and important story is made into a deceptively long film. Without making things melodramatic or over the top, the story (especially the first hour) flows along at quite a pace. We’re introduced to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who discovers things aren’t as comfortable as they seem on Wall Street. Things quickly escalate until the cavalry (in the form of Jeremy Irons) is called in.
Parallels could be made to Wall Street in terms of subject matter and character, but this film definitely stands on its own two feet. Every character has a skeleton in the closet, everyone trying to find a way they can come out on top, even when the entire corporate and capitalist world’s at stake. Just like real life, people have their goods and their bads, and time is devoted to at least getting a glimpse of each from everyone.
But that aspect is a blessing and a curse for this film. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure on some of the characters names throughout, which wasn’t a bad thing. Jeremy Irons walks in the room and calls Kevin Spacey ‘Sam’ and you just go with it. Because of all the characters doing their own thing, there’s a lack of focus. At times you can see something behind the veil as characters come into their own personal problems, but it’s never gone into with a lot of depth. You know Demi Moore is going to try and screw someone over, but it’s never revealed how or why.
That’s what’s missing from this story. High levels of emotion, that people may expect going into a film about Wall Street bankers screwing up. Because of the miniplot, multiple character nature of the story, no one character arc really mattered that much to me. At first it seems that Zachary Quinto’s character will be the protagonist, but in the end he’s focused on as much as any other.
In relation to that, Margin Call might be the wrong choice if you want a story about a Little Guy discovering the wrongdoings of the Big Guy, and going into battle and winning because bankers are bad people, and bad people are hypocrites. In this film you don’t actually root for anyone. Sure, you might think Jeremy Irons should stop that, because it’s not very nice what he’s doing there. But then he explains himself and you can sort of understand where he’s coming from. There are of course different degrees of sympathy and likeability within the cast.
Penn Badgley as the youngster is an annoying little git, even when he’s crying as he’s about to be fired, because he’s shedding tears right onto his million dollar shoes and through his eyes that probably cost a million dollars somehow, and in between his eyes and his shoes, the air he breathes is also costing a million dollars a molecule because he’s a right lucky git. You can actually see him as a work experience kid in the way he’s treated and the way he acts, except he goes ahead and brags about how he’s made a quarter of a million dollars in a year, then compares it to other gi-frigo-normous salaries in the company. Not that I’m jealous, of course.
And that’s the thing. Paul Bettany’s character points it out and it’s true. We’re jealous of these people with their fast cars and nice houses and suits that are shiny, and that’s one of the many perspectives this film brings up, which is one of the film’s strengths. No one is outright good or bad and you can understand each character’s reason for doing this. Jeremy Irons might destroy the lives of others to make money, but if you were in his position, would you do any different? Between him and Paul Bettany, you’re almost persuaded that they’re good guys out to save the world. Almost.
Oh, and a small note. It’d be easier to feel sorry for Paul Bettany (sorry. He plays someone called ‘Will Emerson’, apparently), or stay engrossed in the story completely, if his accent didn’t range from New York to… well, Paul Bettany.
The way the story stays almost permanently within one day is a good idea, especially as it would be impossible to follow all these characters through the troubles that came after. And that’s one of the ideas of the film. As the credits roll to the sounds of one of the characters digging a hole in front of their ex-wives’ house (it makes sense if you watch it), you get that sense that this is just the beginning. And not in a bad sequel, let’s make money from this idea ironically kind of way. You don’t have to see them dealing with the situation afterwards. You just have to know that they’re going to take advantage and do not-nice things to people they’ve never met.
And for this reason, you have a hard time liking any of these characters, but you develop a sly sort of understanding. Because if, in the words of Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), you were offered over a hundred thousand dollars an hour to sit in a room and do nothing, you’d take the offer up before they’d finish offering it to you, even though they just did offer it to you. You’d take it quite quickly, is what I’m saying.
So in the end, Margin Call won’t be for people looking for a barnstorming, wrongs made rights man-drama. It’s a bit more than that. It’s a well paced, well directed look into what happens when people are bogged down by their own mistakes and how they’ll pull up on their ankles as hard as they can to escape. Oh, but you do feel sorry for Kevin Spacey. But that’s only because his dog is sick and he needs more money to pay the vet bills.