Monday, January 16, 2012

Margin Call

Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker Mary McDonnell, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore
Running Time: 109 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

In the opening minutes of writer/director J.C. Chandor's thrilling debut feature Margin Call, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) a manager at an unnamed financial firm, is let go. He's told it's nothing personal. We see his face as he takes the news, says his goodbyes, cleans out his desk and gets escorted to the elevator by security. Just before he leaves he hands his protege Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) a USB drive and tells him to "be careful." That's the set up. What unfolds over the next 24 hours is the pay off. When Peter works out Eric's model the results are horrifying and the potential losses for the firm crippling. There would be no firm. He calls back in his friend and fellow analyst Seth (Penn Badgley) along with their boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany). The information travels up the chain of command to Will's boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), then to Sam's boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) before finally landing in the lap of CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) whose impending 4 am helicopter arrival is so suspenseful it may as well be Darth Vader arriving on the Death Star. Without giving too much away, in just a few scenes Irons exceeds all expectations of this character's involvement, creating the most intriguing (and scariest) portrayal of a high ranking CEO I can remember seeing on screen. Besides being the best performance Irons has given in decades, it's exactly the type of brief, but gripping work the supporting actor Oscar category seems created to acknowledge. 

It's not so much what's said at that emergency meeting, but how, and the implications for all involved. And for a talky film, there are definitely times when nothing is said but you can still feel that the tension is always escalating. This story is all about escalating tension. It would have been easy to choose to make a film demonizing those responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, and even stupider to try to evoke sympathy for them, but Chandor wisely doesn't judge. Your boss has a boss who's taking orders from their boss who's taking orders from another boss and if you're at the bottom of the food chain (or even at the middle), you just do what you're told. The financial crisis started because those at the top got greedy and everyone else just kept following orders. We're taken inside a shark tank where it's a battle for survival but these are real people with qualities both good and bad. The scariest part of the film is how any of them could be any of us if we're willing to take the job and for that money there are likely few among us who wouldn't.

The closest we get to a hero is Quinto's idealistic, inexperienced underling Peter, a rocket scientist whose brains unwillingly take him from the trading floor to a scary meeting with the CEO, where the entire fate of the firm suddenly rests on his calculations. Bettany's Will is a greedy hotshot who has a monologue late in the film that will give you chills. Simon Baker is fantastic as an arrogant wunderkind promoted to securities head before his time but now faces the very real possibility he could be thrown under the bus unless head of risk Sarah Roberston (Demi Moore) takes the fall instead. Though never explicitly stated, we know and she knows it's because she's a woman and she's reached her limit in a man's world. Moore, in full Disclosure mode, hasn't had a part this meaty to chew on in years. The same could be said, perhaps more so, for Spacey, who breaks out of his post-American Beauty slump as a good man torn between doing what's right and doing what's right for the firm, which may or may not be the same thing depending on one's perspective. He knows what the plan is and the devastating consequences for everyone not at the top if they decide to go through with it. A sub-plot involving his ailing dog gives the film an unexpected emotional humanity, serving also as an uncomfortable reminder that situations spiral out of control and anyone, regardless of their values, can be caught up in the current.

This is an astounding debut feature for a filmmaker and it wouldn't be off base to call it Wall Street for the current generation. I'd even go as far as to call it superior to that film (and certainly to its recent sequel) since it has more compelling characters, better performances and isn't as one-sided. It casts no judgment and leaves interpretation up to the viewer, which is why it succeeds. It's a snapshot in time, and a rare opportunity seeing so many actors of such a high talent level appearing together in the same project, much less one with material this strong. They must have been chomping at the bit when they read the script but even with a cast this packed no one seems to be fighting for screen time and each role, however small, feels important. The two standouts are clearly Irons and Spacey but everyone else is excellent, with a few delivering some of their best work. Efficient and tension-filled, there isn't a wasted minute to be found, leaving me pondering what would happen to its characters when the smoke cleared.        

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