Films about the economy have become the modern American horror story. Greedy executives in suits and ties have replaced killers in hockey masks, and we, the American public, are the clueless college kids trapped in the woods just waiting to be murdered.
The slashing here is of our money; our loss is their gain. “Margin Call,” a film both engrossingly fascinating and terrifyingly relevant to our current economic climate, follows the development of decisions such as these—where a group of Wall Street suits attempt to figure out how to transform their mistakes into our burdens.
“Margin Call” follows an approximate 24-hour period of commotion in a dramatized financial world that rarely seems fabricated at all. The fact that this is inspired by a true story is one not hard to believe.
When a file is discovered accurately mapping out a devastating financial crisis at their investment company, the big players of both the branch and corporate headquarters meet and debate from night to morning on how to solve the issue.
The specificities of the crisis never seem to be fully laid out, yet “Margin Call” benefits from jettisoning the jargon and speaking in plain English—at one point a character asks another to explain the problem as if he were describing it to a child or a golden retriever. The one thing immediately clear though is that this company is screwed and the only way to save their skins is by screwing everybody else.
It’s infuriating at times, watching this wealthy assemblage of villains, tyrants, and followers play with our fates, which never fails to feel like a slap in the face. Carelessly disregarding any casualties they may be creating through their plan, we are witnessing a one-sided game of chess in the making. Talk about horror, this is as scary as it gets.
And writer/director J.C. Chandor, in his first feature nonetheless, captures this terror effortlessly. The screenplay, sharp and smart, is driven by dialogue and powerful character development that is embodied through a superb ensemble cast of Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci, and Demi Moore.
Spacey, in his best dramatic performance in over a decade, is Sam Rogers—following his “Horrible Bosses” stint with polar contrast in both performance and character. Rogers, in a well-crafted character flourish, is pulled away from his dying dog’s side at the veterinary office to come deal with his company’s issue. In a way, he’s the most human in a sea of those far from it.
Chandor pens his script carefully and dynamically, rounding out each character and giving them enough screen time to reveal their motives or, even more intriguing, causing us to question them. With a primarily single-setting environment, “Margin Call” claustrophobically entraps us in this world of big-money decision-making to the point of suffocation.
While endlessly entertaining, the film is also arriving at a time where it is at the zenith of topical importance. With the protests of Occupy Wall Street still a hot button issue in our country, “Margin Call” will only fuel the fire. In some ways, the movie stands as a product of historical substance. And the history is happening right now.
Greg Vellante is a film critic for The Eagle Tribune.