"It's a long way down"

When most people think about Wall Street movies they usually conjure images of the financial center’s eponymous Oliver Stone flick or something like Boiler Room showing the fast life and high rewards achieved by twenty-somethings pushing numbers around a computer screen. We think glamorous lifestyles and the stench of arrogance as money-hungry men in suits fleece the common man to make a percentage off their nest egg’s devastating losses. It’s high stakes poker on a grand scale relying on men with ulterior motives to give you the honest truth and steer you onto the correct path. We believe they wouldn’t lead us astray because they’re invested in our dealings, but big risks are the name of the game when you’re playing with someone else’s money.

And this is where J.C. Chandor‘s directorial debut Margin Call comes into play. An authentic look behind the curtain of an investment bank on the brink of taking down the entire market, we find that not everyone on Wall Street is a ‘bad guy’. Yes they’re making upwards of 2.5 million a year by managing a group of kids in jobs they couldn’t do themselves, but they know the big picture. They know what it means to cultivate a relationship with a client and earn their trust. They know that if anything happened to betray such a relationship they would never work in the industry again. Unfortunately, though, the suits above their pay grade have the final say. When it’s either a two million dollar bonus to effectively kill your career or watch it die penniless from home, the choice transcends any need to stick to the principles you believed still mattered.

It all starts with fired employee Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) getting frozen out of the ominous projections he had been working on. As a final act before being escorted from the premises, he passes the file to one of his more intelligent traders with a cautionary, “be careful”. Working after hours to understand the import of those words, Peter (Zachary Quinto) discovers the end wasn’t just on the horizon but had passed them by two weeks previous. The formula their bank’s high-risk executive Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) had created to estimate growth and volatility failed so badly that—if the numbers were correct—the losses taken would be more than the company’s worth.

So, in order to save themselves, the firm must decide whether they’ll sell all their stock knowing it’s worthless. Will they put on the charm despite knowing they’ll be unemployed by the market’s close and steal every cent they can from a client list some have worked decades to build? It’s a game of kill or be killed with men who won their positions by being ruthless, uncompassionate winners their entire lives. Rebuilding is a viable option to them as long as there is something to rebuild—cut your losses and start fresh after the spilled blood is washed from the floors. This is how a closed-door meeting between a few powerful men and women can take down an economy.

A quiet film with some stirring performances from an A-list cast, Margin Call plays out like a theatrical stage show in minimal locations with heavy dialogue. Shot with the lights of a New York City evening out the bank’s skyscraper windows, the calm serenity of a world without a clue juxtaposes perfectly with the tough calls and cataclysmic decisions working through pensive stares and disbelief inside. We listen as young Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) relays how much everyone made the previous year, laugh as his boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and boss’s boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) have trouble understanding the numbers of Peter’s calculations, and begin to understand how unpredictable investing is and how inexperienced at the actual ‘work’ the men in charge are. An eye-opener for sure, who’d think a rocket scientist would actually become a trader because it paid more?

Chandor writes this tale of hubris as though he had been inside that meeting with the bank’s executive board in real life. The cavalier attitude of Jeremy Irons‘ John Tuld calmly deciding to ruin the lives of millions in order to keep his firm alive on life support is pitch perfect ego with a smile hiding the fear beneath. These men are afraid for their lives—career, financial stability, and even freedom from jail—as they work the numbers and realize just how bad things had gotten. Consciences are rediscovered and ignored once survival instincts kick in and the billionaires throwing millions around to cover it up sit back to enjoy a meal of steak as those he robbed blind wake up to the truth mere hours after thinking they bought the deal of a lifetime.

Watching Spacey wrestle within himself deciding whether to toe the company line or walk out is a surprising example of the humanity we forget exists in a field seemingly devoid of it. Cutthroat at the start—crying for his dying dog yet straight-faced and chipper when rallying the troops who survived the company-wide guillotine purge unable to save them from the reality to follow—his Sam may be the most empathetic character of the bunch. With Bettany giving a fantastic turn as the man caught between executives and the employees he considers drinking buddies, Simon Baker‘s way too young for his position of authority’s sleazy brilliance, and Quinto’s innocence-tinged genius not only learning the game but also embracing it, there is a lot to like.

Strong buzz aplenty, the ensemble deserves a place in Oscar consideration, but at the end of the day this dark horse doesn’t have a shot. Much like Warrior from earlier in the year, while Margin Call is an above-average independent that’s more engrossing than most, it doesn’t ever become a masterpiece. Akin to Glengarry Glen Ross on showing the human component in a field dismissed as ruthless, evil, and underhanded, it thrills despite the ending’s certainty. With corporate bribes for silence and semi-willing heads rolling in exchange for payouts, it’s enjoyable to discover these villains may in fact have deeply troubled and darkened souls after all. The power they’re blindly given can’t help but corrupt.

Margin Call: 8/10