Dirty deeds done dirt cheap
New director gets lots of bang for his buck with Wall Street drama
By Tim Pompey 11/10/2011
Directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Simon Baker
Rated R for language
1 hr. 47 mins.
Every so often a small movie comes out that succinctly captures a moment in time and pulls back the curtain on one of those rare secret moments when the world quietly shifted. Such is the movie Margin Call.
Shot on a shoestring budget by young director J.C. Chandor, it nonetheless boasts a stellar cast, a tight script and a willingness to explore a topic that most of us have found both egregious and incomprehensible — the Wall Street collapse of 2007.
But this is not a movie about the big event. This is what happens just before the storm; in fact, the day before anyone even realized there was a storm.
It begins with Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a midlevel risk manager for a Wall Street investment firm who looks up from his desk and finds a duo of black suits in his office. They’re giving him the dreaded message: You’re fired.
Dale packs up his things, but before he leaves, he hands a flash drive to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Qunito), one of his young underlings. Dale asks him to complete a project he’d been working on and warns him to be careful.
That night, Sullivan burns some midnight oil and learns what Dale has deduced — that financial doomsday is coming. The company has bought too many toxic assets and is dangerously leveraged.
When he shares this news with managers Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the bad news travels fast up the food chain. A full-scale board meeting is called at 2 a.m., complete with firm owner John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). They gather to ask the troublesome question: What do we do? The answer? Sell the crap, as quickly and furiously as possible.
Initially, this may sound like a remake of the film Wall Street. But this is more akin to Wall Street Undone, and the insider angst created by director Chandor and cast is so palpable it makes you wince in your seat.
The reason for this is twofold. First, excellent writing by Chandor — lean and edgy, credible and thought-provoking. The story may be fictional, but Chandor provides pinpoint scenarios. He writes as if he actually shared a seat inside a boardroom or two, and he clearly understands the Wall Street trader’s insatiable lust for money.
Second, a dream cast filled with Oscar winners as well as young up-and-comers who seem inspired to rise to the occasion.
At the top of the list is Kevin Spacey, who gives perhaps one of the best performances of his career as Sam Rogers, a man who’s drunk too deeply from the troughs of thieves, liars and cannibals. With his last shred of decency, he would like to do the right thing, but it’s too late. The devil is smiling because Rogers has sold his soul.
Honorable mention also goes to a great ensemble, including TV stars Simon Baker and Zachary Quinto as well as film veterans Tucci, Bettany, Moore and, in a cold-hearted role he seems to relish, Jeremy Irons. If there is such a thing as ensemble synergy, this is it.
But the real surprise here is Chandor himself, who, in his first full-length feature, has pulled off a feat most veteran directors capture maybe once or twice in their careers. Chandor has skillfully recreated the desperation, cynicism and hustle that makes Wall Street a very nasty and dangerous place to do business.
Margin Call gives laypeople like me a window inside the deal. It’s dirty, it’s devious, but for those who survive, it’s also very profitable. For the rest of us, eh, not so much, but as this film reflects, this is our modern money model. Today, this is how the world does business.