Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Margin Call Surpasses the Minimum Requirements

It took a while, but it seems filmmakers are starting to tell a wealth of stories to about the impact of the financial crisis that lead to the worldwide recession. Although there have been several foreign films, including the animated film from China Piercing 1, that have looked at the fallout the crisis from the average persons standpoint, many of the North American films, like the documentary Inside Job, have focused more the crisis from a business standpoint. Margin Call is a film that falls into that latter category. At first glance, Margin Call appears to be simply a cross between Up in the Air and Inside Job. However, when the true nature of the film reveals itself, Margin Call turns out to be a unique and rewarding experience.

Set inside an investment bank, Margin Call follows two junior risk management employees, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), as they witness firsthand the beginning stages of the financial crisis of 2008. On a day of mass layoffs, Peter’s now ex-boss Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) hands him a USB drive. Prior to his dismissal Eric was working on something that he could not quite crack. When Peter eventually figures out the missing piece he makes a startling discovery regarding the formula, used worldwide, used to calculate volatility levels in the market place. Soon Peter and Seth find themselves in a meeting with their new boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), the head of sales Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the heads of both the company’s securities and risks sectors (Simon Baker and Demi Moore), as well as the CEO of the company John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) to determine what course of action the company should take next. With less than 24 hours before the floor collapses signifying the end of the lucrative financial times, tough choices have to be made and loyalties will come into question.

Margin Call is not concerned with giving the audience a lesson in what led to the financial crisis of 2008. Director J.C. Chandor knows that the events have been well documented in the media, including in the film Inside Job, so he spends very little time on that aspect. Instead, Chandor is more interested in how companies reacted to the coming storm. Margin Call skilfully examines how decisions made within a 24 hour period a had devastating impact not only the world, but the employees at many of the Wall Street firms responsible for the crisis.

The fact that J.C. Chandor was able to humanize many of the individuals is quite a feat. Even characters that the audience initially despise, such as Sam and Sarah, become relatable. This is one of the reasons Margin Call is such an effective film. One does not need to be an expert in financial dialect to enjoy it. If you have ever worked for a big corporation, then many of the themes in this film will ring true. The film makes several statements about how the survival of the fittest mentality trumps both loyalty and moral responsibility every time. The people at the top will do anything to stay there and hard working employees at the bottom of the ladder are expendable. Some of the best scenes in the film come when characters are asked to continue producing, or in one case be the scapegoat, even though their jobs are essentially over.

Margin Call is a strong debut film from J.C. Chandor that excels in both its script and the performances from the ensemble cast. Chandor’s script does not feature grand boisterous scenes that one might expect from this type of film. It is filled with tightly woven dialogue that provides much for his actors to chew on. It is tough not to feel uneasy when Jeremy Irons calmly utters lines like “there will be a lot of money to be made coming out of this mess.” Margin Call features one of the best ensemble performances you will see this year. Everyone from vets like Irons and Spacey to those now hitting their prime, such as Bettany and Quinto, give outstanding performances.

Margin Call is a film that seems to slip under the radar for many this year which is startling considering how good the film is. As mentioned, Margin Call is not a flashy film by any means, its strength is in its subtly which may be one reason not too many are singing its praises. Regardless, Margin Call is a film that should not be missed. It is not only one of the best dramas about business to hit theatre since the original Wall Street, but it is also one of the more riveting films of this year.


  1. Hmm, this review makes me reconsider my original dismissal of this movie. I didn't think it necessarily looked bad, but sort of boring and self-important. I actually want to see it a lot more now. The most interesting aspect is, like you mentioned, the mix of the cast with big respected names matched with Quinto, Bettany, and Badgely who have yet make a huge impact in Hollywood. I'll have to check this out.


  2. Cool cast this one has! Nice to see Bettany in a .. respectable movie for once. He's so charismatic and interesting as an actor but seems to have questionable sense of picking films.

    It'll also be interesting to see Badgley in this role as his performance of Buckley is coming up. Whether he is an ok drama actor or not is still a mystery to me.

  3. @Jess – Fortunately the film never feels like it is trying to be self-important. It does not preach at the audiences but merely shows how easily morals can be compromised in business when there is much at stake. If you enjoy films like Glengarry Glen Ross, or to a lesser extent Boiler Room, you should enjoy Margin Call on some level.

    @Anna – It was nice to see Bettany in a role with substance again. I had started worry about his film choices after films like Legion and Priest.

    As for Badgley, his character in the film is a bit annoying but the actor does a good job in the role. Although I have seen Badgley in films like Easy A, John Tucker Must Die and The Stepfather he is not an actor whose face I always seem to forget. Even watching Margin Call I could not help but ask “who is this guy?” This is probably a result of having never seen Gossip Girls. Hopefully the Jeff Buckley film will be the big breakout he has been waiting for.


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