Watch now on:
Two years before The Wolf of Wall Street ripped open the ribcage of financial chicanery and revealed a heart beating triple-time on coke and quaaludes, a much slower-burning yet equally intense story of risk management was told by first-time writer/director J.C. Chandor. Margin Call is a compelling and soul-searching drama based on some of the critical events that underpinned the 2007/08 Global Financial Crisis.
While the unnamed investment bank at the heart of the expertly underplayed action closely resembles several real-world counterparts, a deliberate lack of specificity only lends weight to the common and universal themes at play—power, treachery, deceit, greed, conscience.
With this brilliant cold sweat of a movie, Chandor has forged a strong connection to another masterpiece of profit-driven desperation, Glengarry Glen Ross (written by David Mamet, a clear inspiration; and like Margin Call, costarring Kevin Spacey among a flawless ensemble cast), and back further still to Arthur Miller’s theatrical American classic Death of a Salesman.
The director knows his subject well—his father was an investment banker at Merrill Lynch—and he holds true to the fact that it’s rarely all blood ’n’ thunder in the corridors of financial power, where the untrained eye sees little more than mouse-clickers in crisply pressed shirts. In The Wolf of Wall Street, by extreme contrast, a feral degree of bedlam and debauchery on the trading floor is soundtracked by the scorched blues of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” but in Margin Call, we’re given an empty room full of luminous screens, as the arrival of the supermassive fiscal storm is softly, ominously, heralded by Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude.
The movie’s opening includes a static fish-eye view of Manhattan—a visual hint that we’re about to enter a self-contained world hard for outsiders to penetrate. Chandor grants us access, reveals the inner cogs, and spells out abstruse financial twists in words anyone can understand, without losing authenticity. As Jeremy Irons’ company CEO John Tuld requests of the employee who spots a fatal flaw in the company’s risk management formula, “Just speak to me in plain English . . . speak as you might to a young child or a golden retriever.”
The script is a masterpiece of subtext, as Chandor coaxes out the unpalatable truths beneath Wall Street’s cracked veneer. One man’s “bloodbath” is another man’s “bad luck.” A pep talk given by Head of Sales and Trading, Sam Rogers (Spacey), in the wake of a mass redundancy, is a eulogy for dead-men-walking thinly veiled as a celebration of opportunity and corporate survival.
The director generates extreme tension by presenting human desperation not with the bells and whistles of cinematic hyperbole, but with understatement. He followed Margin Call with All Is Lost, a minimalist shipwreck movie that offers little more than one brief syllable of on-screen dialogue. That word—a single anguished cry of “Fuck!”—could equally well have summarized the plight of every individual in Margin Call.
At one point, Head of Trading Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) stands with two colleagues on the top of the company skyscraper, and echoes an oft-quoted line from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you [people] wouldn’t believe.” Delivered by Rutger Hauer’s dying replicant, the words are a celebration of light, life, and wonderment, but here they signify darkness, shame, and duplicity.
Traders can be seen, we are told, as “glorified crack addicts” on massive salaries. That much we learned from The Wolf of Wall Street, but what we also appreciate in Margin Call is a profound familiarity beneath the caricature. A retreat from judgment, coupled with Chandor’s exploration of sympathy and understanding among the widely reviled, gives the movie much of its power.
Spacey’s Rogers puts a human face on the subterfuge. His dog is dying of cancer, and the film finishes with the digging of a grave, ostensibly for the beloved pet, but also for the better hopes, intentions, and ideals of not just the crash-bound traders but of human