Margin Call (2011)



J.C. Chandor
J.C. Chandor

Director of Photography:
Frank DeMarco

Running time: 107 minutes

J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call opens with force, and its opening scenes sustain the energy of this film, which is mostly set in a single location throughout most of its running time, encompassing a diegetic time frame of roughly 36 hours.

There is no conventional setup; instead, the surprise is the setup. We meet the characters and the sudden turmoil in medias res, as employees at an investment bank see their colleagues being let go. The impact of this storm is all the more powerful because the axing takes place in full view of the entire staff, as the fateful meetings are scheduled in a conference room with a glass wall facing the rest of the office.

Margin Call gives us a rush of adrenaline already, and we don’t even know what the film is about, yet. But then we see Eric Dale getting fired. Dale is played by Stanley Tucci, and obviously, if Tucci is playing him, he has to be consequential. Indeed, although he may only appear in three scenes, his character is pivotal to the development of the film. To remind us of his significance, he is mentioned every few scenes, and we get the very real sense there would have been no Margin Call had it not been for the delicate project and catastrophic projections Dale had been working on.

Not that the film lacks big names. Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto all feature in this cast of professionals. One has to admire the confidence of first-time filmmaker J.C. Chandor, whose follow-up would be the exceptional All is Lost with Robert Redford as a cast unto himself in 2013. This film required an ensemble that works together in unison with characters only rising above the rest at very critical moments, and Chandor’s direction is flawless.

We eventually do find out that the film is set in 2008, and while this is not Lehman Brothers, it is a very similar outfit, with some of the same problems. Quinto’s character, Peter Sullivan, is entrusted with some deeply troubling data by the outgoing Dale, which basically show that the company is about to tank, as over the previous two weeks its volatility has started to exceed historical levels.

Luckily, one does not need to understand the terminology used to describe the systemic failures behind the action in order to grasp the seriousness of the situation here. The language is generally transparent and easy to comprehend, and is helped by some of the major players here just being good salesmen and not necessarily all that into linguistic gymnastics with financial lingo – some of the most highly paid individuals here cannot even read a chart.

In the middle of the film, there is a wonderful scene around a conference table when the self-admitted earner of “the big bucks”, the company’s CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), asks Sullivan to explain the situation to him and to those around the table, “as you might to a young child, or a Golden Retriever.” What Sullivan reveals to them, and to us, is that the firm is at a point where it either throws all sense of morality out the window and keeps on to a fraction of its cash, and likely making many on staff instant millionaires because of the way these things work out, or own up to its makes and loses all its money.

Of course, the firm chooses the former option, but while there is nothing wrong with the overarching narrative, the film falters in its final act by not letting us experience the exhilarating moral dilemma the characters face on the big day. Too little of the final day is shown, and most of the action seems tired and simply added on to the whirlwind of revelations and decisions of the night before, all of which we were witness to, including one of the most important meetings ever held at the company, taking place at 2:15 a.m.

The opening shot of the film – a time-lapse showing the Manhattan skyline – is also disappointing, as it establishes place but doesn’t convey the feeling of an adrenaline rush we would have got if we had immediately been shown the inside of the office. In fact, the film is rather unimpressive when it comes to its visuals, although the director does use green lighting effectively to convey the feeling of money everywhere.

Peter Sullivan is a wonderful character, and not only because of Quinto’s expressive face, but mostly because he seems genuinely nice. In one of the first scenes, he thanks his mentor shortly after he was fired, to thank him for taking a chance on him. Sullivan’s colleague, Seth, is played by the curious-eyed Penn Badgley, who is an equally charming character: slightly awkward and more sensitive to the highs and lows on the timeline, we also briefly see he wears white socks, subtly hinting that he doesn’t really belong in this rough and tumble world.

In the final scene, the focus abruptly shifts to the character of floor head Sam Rogers (played by Kevin Spacey), who we have learned cares very little about life outside the office. His dog, Ella, has died, although we don’t know whether it was a natural death or if he had finally decided to relieve the animal of its suffering. The film seems to imply his grief is noteworthy, because we get a few sounds over the black screen of the closing credits, but this entire scene is presented in a way that seems disproportionately overblown compared with the rest of the story.

Margin Call has some terrific bits and for much of its running time it is riveting. It is too bad the final few sequences are so rushed and don’t give us the kind of insight into the characters that were just starting to grow on us, as we really want to know how the actions they take affect them in the moment and beyond.

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