Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) journeys into the belly of the investment banking beast in JC Chandor’s debut feature.
Having survived the culling of 80% of the workforce, Peter is handed a USB drive by his less successful boss as he is escorted out of the building along with two words of advice: Be Careful.
Although Peter looks to be our guide through the story – through this world of hard-edged executives dealing intangible products and earning 7 figure bonuses – he speaks in a language that no one else understands. He is the audience surrogate but rather than have everyone explain what’s happening to him, and thereby us, he is the one with the answer who has to explain it to everyone else. With a PhD in physics this rocket scientist turned risk analyst has discovered some troubling data predictions for the company, and the sector, and, everyone really – this is the beginning of the financial crisis of 2008. The very beginning. The pin-point moment when it all fell apart seen through the eyes of those discovering it.
Completing his calculations late into the night whilst everyone else celebrates not being fired, Peter has to call his bosses back to the office (a gum-chewing straight-down-the-line Paul Bettany and an understated Kevin Spacey) to send this information up the chain – and so begins a series of dumbed down explanations attempting to communicate the scale of disaster fast approaching. Even CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), flown in via helicopter, needs it broken down for him: ‘speak as you might to a young child or a golden retriever’. The point here is that no-one in charge knows how it works – and though this series of explanations brings us closer to understanding the cause of the collapse, the focus is how these people will deal with the news and how they will ultimately escape unscathed.
Taking the economic catastrophe of recent history and looking at it from the perspective of those who where at the helm leaves you with a strange feeling. We are presented some likeable characters but you can’t help but feel complete disdain for these suits who will save themselves, who will evade the crisis and knowingly pass it on to regular people. This point is made clear in passing dialogue, distinguishing themselves from the ‘real people’ who will actually be affected.
The Wolf of Wall Street stirred some controversy when it showed ruthless stockbrokers benefitting from regular people’s losses without ever showing the victims. Margin Call‘s top bods don’t even consider the victims to go after them maliciously, they are interested in survival – for the company, for themselves. Their rationalised indifference is somehow more obnoxious than the overt manipulation of the wolves, and it feels like this could easily be a reality.
The film’s strength is in it’s writing. It allows the performances to be sharp and fast-moving, gifting each character with a brazen attitude and silver tongue. A boardroom meeting plays as a hyper-masculine battle of egos. Kevin Spacey’s performance is subtle, showing an internal moral conflict that he knows is futile. It feels like GlenGarry Glenn Ross but the dank room is now a Manhattan high-rise and Kevin Spacey is a touch more human thanks to his dying dog. Just a touch mind, these people are ruthless automatons and they know it.