by Susan Patterson
margin call (noun) 1. a demand by a broker that an investor deposit further cash or securities to cover possible losses
J C Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) is a clever, smart film, and I don’t understand how I missed it when it went on general release in January. Admittedly, it came out the same week as Shame and War Horse, but I was already jaded by Fassbender’s cock, and horses, even brave ones, hold even less interest for me.
Margin Call lays its cards on the table fom the start; this is a ruthless business, employees only matter when they are useful to the firm, and as soon as they are sacked they no longer exist, as Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) finds out when, within moments of being escorted out of the building, his Blackberry no longer works. His parting gesture is to hand a flash drive to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) with a warning to be careful. Giving it to the smartest guy in the building is the firm’s undoing. As Sullivan goes through the figures he works out that the company is about to become worthless. He calls his boss, played by Paul Bettany, whose English accent tells us that he’s not a good guy, who calls his, Kevin Spacey. Each new level of boss arrives into the night until eventually Jeremy Irons helicopters in, also with his English accent intact, demanding to be told what’s gone wrong. The growing ensemble, which now includes Demi Moore and Simon Barker, begins to turn on each other in subtle, power playing ways, each seeking to cover their own arse and pass the buck.
The only way out for the firm is to sell its worthless product on, and those that do it are promised huge bonuses, but also told that their careers will be over because their credibility with their buyers will be shot. Dale needs to be brought back in, in case his assumed bitterness makes him blab, and the search to find him, hampered by his disconnected Blackberry, begins.
This is a version of how the global financial crisis started in 2008. The firm’s product is (probably) sub-prime mortgages, mortgages for people who couldn’t afford them and would never be able to pay them back. The product isn’t dwelt on. It doesn’t really matter if we understand or not because occasionally a character will stand up tell us exactly what’s going on, but does it eloquently and stylishly, which saves this from being a film where lots of people stand around looking at massive green text on a computer screen, looking up only occasionally to mutter ‘fuck, we’re all screwed’. The naissance of the crisis is fictionalised in a credible way by exploring how the characters react to each other. It’s a thriller, not so much in that there is constant and imminent threat to life and limb, but more in that with hindsight we know what comes next.
The acting in Margin Call is solid, and the film has a few beautiful moments: Paul Bettany itemising how he spends his $2 million salary; Stanley Tucci calculating what his past work means to drivers between two small towns; Zachary Quinto outlining his background; Jeremy Irons showing his lack of conscience a speech to Kevin Spacey about fat cats and starving dogs. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and it’s a shame that it lost to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
Margin Call is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 12 November.