Since Wall Street hit the skids in 2008, American film (both mainstream and independent) has embraced the financial collapse. Out of the gate a year later was Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, which allegorically captured more of the terror and chaos of the crash than either Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (2009) or John Well’s The Company Men (2010) (both of which applied a melodramatic formula). Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) explained the crash succinctly, capturing the speed of the digital financial world, while Inside Job (2010) attempted to finger those who were to blame (as the US justice department seemed unable to).
Three years on, J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call positions itself as a financial thriller. It boasts an impressive ensemble cast, including Zachary Quinto with human ears (he played Spock in 2009’s Star Trek reboot). Logically, the thriller genre seems like a good fit for the material. Thrillers play on anxiety, uncertainty and tension—all of which characterize the recession. Of course, the villain, a key part of any thriller, is an entire system rather than a single person, which complicates matters. And beating the system, as we’ve increasingly seen, is all but impossible.
Margin Call manages to capture this sense of impotency, as its characters struggle to stop the inevitable collapse. After risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is fired from a large investment bank, he passes some data he was working on to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). What Peter finds starts a domino effect that eventually reaches the upper echelons of the bank—then back down through the markets themselves.
Unlike other financial-crash films, Margin Call is set largely in offices. The disaster isn’t the crash itself, but rather the dawning realization that the men and women who supposedly control the world’s financial health are barely in control at all.
Chandor’s script, like his camera work, is both slow and taut. It makes us wish that everyone involved could think and act faster in order to find a solution. (This despite the fact we know the end result has already been written.) All the characters—from a slightly bloated Kevin Spacey as the long-term company man, to Jeremy Irons as the removed and powerful executive, to teen heart throb Penn Badgley as the playboy investment banker—work individually, but at the same time they act as suitable archetypes from the world of high-risk finance. To bring things back to Quinto’s ears, he brings something of that Spock-like socially awkward behaviour to his role here as a wunderkind math genius. Even if we aren’t able to follow his math, by the film’s end we see that—long life aside—prosperity is no guarantee.