Margin Call


Directed by JC Chandor. Starring Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci 15A cert, limited release, 106 min

IN THE mid-1970s, as the Watergate malarkey unfurled, the complex, unforgiving conspiracy thriller became the era’s signature genre. By now, cinemas should have been groaning with movies about the 2008 financial meltdown. Yet we search in vain. Are we too dumb? Are the details too complex even for smart people?

So thank heavens for this gripping, well-acted (if occasionally clumsy) debut feature from JC Chandor. Hanging itself loosely around the Lehman Brothers debacle, Margin Callmanages the impressive feat of explaining the inexplicable while retaining control over a propulsive, precipitous narrative. It makes Wall Streetseem like an Oliver Stone film.

The picture begins in similar fashion to last year’s ho-hum The Company Men. Things are looking grim at one of New York’s biggest investment banks. The hitmen have arrived with soft soap to fire swathes of suited masters of the universe.

Before Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) makes it to the elevator, he hands a memory stick to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a young risk analyst, and presses him to “be careful”. It transpires that, burdened by bad debts, the company is on the point of imminent annihilation.

Chandor makes use of a sour irony to help the audience understand the complex catastrophe. The higher an employee is in the food chain, the less he or she seems to understand the mechanics of the business. “Speak to me as you would to a Labrador,” Jeremy Iron’s slimy chief executive tells Sullivan. His explanation is lucid enough, even for a financially illiterate film critic.

Margin Callis often stagey in its blocking and dialogue. “Seems like a dream?” somebody says. “We may have just woken up,” comes the inevitable reply. But, featuring a subtle ambient score, the film can’t be faulted for its creative cynicism and willingness to address unpleasant truths.

Playing a mildly ruthless executive, Paul Bettany patiently explains that, had the bankers continued to deliver prosperity, most “normal people” wouldn’t have given a fig about their greed, vulgarity or irresponsibility.

It’s sobering because it’s true.