Sam (Kevin Spacey) motivates his sales team in Margin Call.
Margin Call does for business what The Ides of March did for politics. It tells a familiar, high-stakes story about people making difficult and morally-questionable decisions. And like George Clooney's film from earlier this month, rookie writer/director J.C. Chandor's film isn't afraid to get very technical on its viewers. If you're unfamiliar with some of the basic causes of the financial crisis, you very well might get lost. But this talky thriller is surprisingly tense, features a number of exceptional performances, and is certainly worth 100 minutes of your time.
The film opens on Eric Dale's (Stanley Tucci) last day on the job at an anonymous (but presumably large) Wall St. financial firm. He's been laid off, along with dozens of others, and on his way out, he leaves his protege, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), with a memory stick and a message: "Be careful."
Peter works through the data he's given and discovers a sobering truth: The firm is in much worse shape than anyone realizes, and its prime assets will soon be worthless. He calls in his new boss, Will (Paul Bettany), and shares his findings. Will informs his boss, Sam (Kevin Spacey). Sam tells his boss, Jared (Simon Baker), who then calls the firm's CEO (Jeremy Irons). With all the need-to-know people in place and only hours left until the opening bell rings, they talk through their options. However, it's clear to most everyone involved that there's only one real choice, and it's one that will mean the end of the company and most of these people's careers.
It's hard not to admire Margin Call's ensemble cast. There are two former Oscar winners (Spacey and Irons) just owning everyone around them, plus up-and-comer Quinto as the film's most sympathetic and relatable individual. Demi Moore has a small part as an executive who gets thrown under the bus. The only somewhat useless character is Penn Badgley's. I don't blame the actor (he's as good as he's ever been), but the character has no arc and very little to do. With so many other people to keep track of, he just takes up valuable time and space.
What I found most interesting about the film was how helpless all of these people were. When the film begins, Will appears to have a great deal of power. As executive after executive comes in, however, we realize he's nothing but a cog in the machine. What's better is that the exact same thing happens to every man and woman above him--all the way up to the top. It would seem like the CEO, John, would have the ability to make some kind of major decision, but by the time it gets up to him, the choice is unavoidable. Quinto and Badgely's character frequently postulate how much their superiors make. The film answers them by saying it doesn't matter because they're as helpless as the worker bees in the grand scheme of things.
Because the film takes place over just 24 hours, the stakes seem higher and the tension is certainly greater. There are some great shots of the dark New York skyline, and the inevitability of everything that happens gives the film a kind of dark irony I didn't expect. Overall, it's just a slick and solid piece of filmmaking. I'll revert back to my review of The Ides of March when I say the film's biggest negative point is that it doesn't really say or do anything unexpected or out of the ordinary. But it's a riveting piece of old-fashioned suspense and probably the best film about corporate life since Up in the Air.