Margin Call – Review

With the financial world still in turmoil since the financial crash of 2008 a film comes along which explores the origins of the crisis and how, within a fictional environment, very real issues and consequences are explored.

Margin Call focuses on a twenty-four-hour period that leads up to the collapse of an unnamed investment bank in 2008. It begins near the end of a working day on the trading floor. Several serious people arrive and start to escort members of staff away. They are being made redundant. A risk manager who is among the fallen passes off a file to a junior risk analyst asking that the task he was addressing be completed. He departs with the words “Be careful”. Intrigued by these parting words the analyst goes to work on the info and discovers that the firm is in deep trouble and on the brink of bankruptcy. Flagging this up to his boss sets off a chain of events that lead to decisions that will affect not only the bank but the whole of the financial sector.

The basis of this film is in the fairly complicated (to me) world of finance. I didn’t feel that it spoiled the film as there were a couple of scenes where there was a deliberate explanation of what was going on. In one scene during an executive board meeting, the head of the investment bank asks the junior analyst to explain how he came to his conclusions and urges him to speak as if he were talking to a child. This gives everyone an ‘in’ to the complex financials and draws you further into the story.

The majority of the story takes place within the office block emphasizing the isolation from the real world. There are repeated scenes where the staff is looking out into the world as if it were some alien environment. You do not see any ‘real’ people throughout the film. They are peripheral characters in the drama that is being played out. There is a scene set late at night. Two execs enter a list that is occupied by a cleaner. They stand on either side of the woman and talk about the strategy to save themselves and completely ignore their surroundings including the cleaner. Any scenes outside of the office are closely focused on the characters with no cutaways to anyone else. Even then the characters are cut off by wearing earphones, being in a car, or standing alone. Every performance is buttoned down. Little or no emotion is shown. The higher up within the organisation the character is the more they hold it together even under the harshest pressure. It is left to a lowly exec to actually break down. Even then it is the privacy of the restroom. There is an unnerving calm during scenes where another film would have had a lot of histrionics. This all adds to the tension of the piece. Without giving anything away the expected big finish transpires in an unexpected but satisfying way.

The cast is a very good mix. Established big name stars such as Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, and Kevin Spacey bring their best to the film. There is a little scenery-chewing going on from Jeremy Irons but as his character was built up by his absence it is forgivable.  Younger stars Zachary Quinto (Spock and Syler) and Penn Badgley more than hold their own in this company. The characters are deliberately left underdeveloped to add to the mood of isolation. It is only as the film progresses that some of the characters’ back story is revealed. The Kevin Spacey character at first is shown as being a heartless company man who cares more about his sick dog than the staff who are being marched out the door. It is only later that the subplot involving the dog shows his more human side and reveals that he is grieving the loss of his only remaining link to the real world.

This is an accomplished piece of work for a first-time director. Shots are composed with a good deal of stillness and there is very little in the way of a soundtrack, allowing silence and natural sound to set the mood. It probably won’t top any best-of lists for 2012 but it can be classed as an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

John McArthur
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