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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

To hear first-time writer-director J.C. Chandor tell it, Margin Call is not a message movie about how capitalism is broken. I will allow him to maintain whatever opinion he wants about the intentions behind the movie he made, but if this isn't an anti-capitalist rant, I have to wonder what Chandor would have done if he were in a message movie state of mind. Rich Folks Rapin' Babies: The Movie, or something along those lines, I guess.

Margin Call is the story of some 30 hours in the life of an investment bank (that is absolutely in no way shape or form Lehman Brothers) in 2008, which as you may recall was an awfully nasty time to be an investment bank (particularly Lehman Brothers). It begins during a morning purge in which several employees from every rung of the ladder are let go, among them Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk analyst specialist who has just enough time before his undignified exit from the building to hand his second-in-command, 28-year-old Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a flash drive with the admonition, "be careful". Sullivan stays late from work that night to look at Dale's work-in-progress, and determines that his ex-boss was just about on the cusp of mathematically proving that the firm was overexposed. Way damn overexposed, on over-valued real estate. And he further calculates that it's sheer fucking luck that the previous soft week in the market hadn't already sent the company plunging into default.

Sullivan takes this info to his new boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany, and Emerson takes it to his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), and Rogers takes it to his boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), and then it ends up with the CEO of the firm and all its sister companies, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), and over the course of an extremely miserable all-nighter, these folks and a few others - among them Demi Moore as top executive Sarah Moore, the only girl in a boys' club who is obliged to be a ruthless bitch in order to survive, meaning that this film returns us not only to 2008, but to 1988 as well - run through their options trying to figure out how to keep the firm alive long enough to dump their rotten assets; the best case scenario will turn them into pariahs and probably destablise the entire real-estate market, and while some of the people involved, especially Rogers and Sullivan, think that is an outcome to be avoided, more or less everybody is on board with that plan by the time dawn comes. Which is only a spoiler if you just got here in your time machine from 2007.

Insofar as this is not an all-out attack on Lehman Brothers Lite, it's because Chandor makes sure to give every character a lot of chance to explain his perspectives (or hers, as applicable), to express his fears and hopes for the future, and such. "The fantastically rich people proximally responsible for destroying the economy are also thinking, feeling people!" seems to be the idea behind it, and they doubtlessly are. They are also, as the film presents them, not tremendously decent people. The bulk of the cast freely admits to having no idea how this arcane financial jujitsu results in their swollen wallets, and Tuld openly wishes not to know. Other than Rogers, and to a much smaller degree Sullivan (who confesses at one point that he gave up work a rocket scientist because the money was better on Wall Street), not a one of the characters acts as though they plan on losing sleep over the decisions they're making, even when they are well aware that according to any code of ethics in the world, what they're doing is "wrong".

What is probably true, and maybe this is what Chandor means when he denies that this is a leftist message movie, is that Margin Call doesn't go out of its way to judge any of these people; the dominant mode is one of restrained observation: the characters go through their extremely hectic business and make their decisions with more or less soul-searching, and that is that. The film depicts a lifestyle in which even the lowest peons have so much money that they, in a very real way, cannot fathom what other kinds of life are like. Sullivan's co-worker, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) is obsessed with knowing what everyone else made the year before, and even the smallest figures are a more-than-cozy figure; but not a single person seems to care about wealth as such; Emerson even details with pointed casualness how easy it is to spend $1.25 million in a single calendar year, and seems to be neither bragging nor complaining.

Clearly, Margin Call isn't extolling this kind of lifestyle, any more than it's criticising. It's just watching as the people who have this singular worldview trying to figure out a way that they can continue having it for another 24 hours. It's no Wall Street: nothing here is shown to be sexy or exciting. It's just damned exhausting and unpleasant, framed by Chandor and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco as a whirlwind of steel blue interiors with artificial lighting.

"Exhausting" is meant to be a compliment, by the way: the thing that Margin Call does best of all, even better than give us a peek inside a "what-if" version of summer, 2008, is to suggest the psychic toll of being involved in those kinds of world-changing decisions. Structurally, this is an absolutely fascinating story: it gives us a whole lot of feints at a lead character, and seems to back those feints up with its casting choices, but it's a procedural at heart, and as the night drags on, the plot moves to whichever boardroom or city street has the action at that moment. Characters drift away as their importance is used up and comes back when they can contribute; character arcs that seem important are dropped or left on the back burner until there's a long enough wait between moments that the characters themselves have time for any self-reflection.

We are denied a single character to anchor the film, because in a certain sense, the investment bank itself is the main character, and the story is the tragedy of how it can either die tomorrow, or survive by setting everything on fire. It's a case study of one very long night of professionals collaborating and fighting with each other that relies on our knowledge of what happened to fill in all of the gaps outside of its very limited timeframe and to give the proper context to what we're watching, it works. It is a very simple movie, when all is said and done, driven by a single idea to a single end, but it is slick and thrilling and completely watchable, and it says its piece about the ghastly state of the world cleanly and effectively - not one of the great films of the year, but an absolutely fine thriller with its brain firmly intact.



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