Review: Margin Call (2011)

By Jason McKiernan

In the perceived calm of night, a young risk analyst burns the midnight oil at his cutthroat Wall Street investment bank, staring into a perplexing boondoggle of numbers and equations long after all his colleagues have left for the night. In the midst of a nightlong marathon of tunnel-vision computing, he inputs one crucial formula…and shudders in horror when the results appear on the screen. We aren’t told what he’s looking at, but the implications are unmistakable – the boom has been lowered, the death knell is sounding, and there is no escape.

So begins Margin Call, which is like an end-of-the-world thriller where the uncompromising elements of the apocalypse are not earthquakes or monsoons, but numbers and formulas. Characters are confronted with the dire reality that their world will be collapsing in a matter of hours, and they convene over a 24-hour period to discuss the implications, desperately discuss futile exit strategies, and piece together the decisions that set this Armageddon into motion. They – like the real-life Wall Street traders who were either blind to or defiant against the pending mortgage crisis – come to realize that a decade’s worth of lucrative deals made with invisible money can obliterate the entire market in the course of a single day.

That day begins with a curious harbinger. Corporate downsizers blaze through the trading floor of the nameless firm, laying off 80% of its employees. One of those sacrificed is Eric (Stanley Tucci), a senior analyst who was on the verge of unearthing a bombshell. He passes his findings – stored on a USB drive – to young protégé Peter (Zachary Quinto), saying only, “Be careful.” Peter then makes the discovery during that late night marathon session, and no amount of care can sidestep the inevitable: a financial meltdown is on the horizon.

If that description sounds hazy or indistinct, that is the film’s intention. Margin Call provides a snapshot of hysteria in purposefully vague strokes. We can barely understand the minutiae of the calculations being discussed…we don’t even really understand what they mean in specific terms. No matter – we aren’t intended to. Writer-director J.C. Chandor, in his first feature, makes art out of obfuscation and suggestion. There are plenty of detailed discussions and specific terms exchanged, but no explicit presentation of the “how’s” and “why’s” of the crisis at hand. The film takes place in 2008, and we can ascertain that this is a representation of the type of panic that took place many times during that crucial period in our recent history. The fictional financial firm at the center of the film is never given a name; it is merely a symbol for every greedy, over-reaching Wall Street investment bank that sent us down a disastrous financial path from which we’ve yet to recover.

Money is the operative factor for everyone in the film – the desire for money is what led them to work on Wall Street, the fear of losing money is what kept them stagnant in these passion-less roles for years, and the extreme, persistent flaunting of money is what led them down this fiscal rabbit hole. Money represents need, and need is what drives these characters through this one fateful day.

A few of them pause to consider the larger consequences. Among them are Peter, who is brilliant with numbers but naïve to the darker aspects of the financial industry; Eric, a family man who is well aware of the company’s greed and the market’s fragility; and their boss, Sam (Kevin Spacey), who at first appears to be a cog in the machine, but whose humanity is laid bare when he considers the consequences of this disaster. Others seem immune to the disease of empathy – like Will (Paul Bettany), who spends the majority of his seven-figure salary on cars, clothes, and hookers; or Seth (Penn Badgley), a young analyst with such a singular focus on image and wealth that when he stops to consider the implications of this cataclysm, he literally cries like a baby. When we finally meet the company CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), we realize he is just as clueless as we are. “Speak as you might to a child or a Golden Retriever,” he says before being briefed on the crisis. “It’s not brains that got me here.”

We feel the weight of American hubris as it crumbles around these characters, but we also acknowledge that, at the end of the day, they are too deeply entrenched to make a clean break from the chaos. Some of them have true enough souls to be forever scarred by the events of this harrowing day, but not many have the will to walk away and start fresh when it’s over.

75/100 - Margin Call is a chilling and insightful snapshot of Wall Street hot shots on the verge of a financial apocalypse.

Sr. Staff Film Critic & Awards Pundit: I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.