September 2008. Feels like it’s been about ten years since then yet it’s only been a little over three years. Margin Call does its best to capture a 24-hour period at a fictitious investment bank during that dark economic reality.
From the start the tone is ominous. The soundtrack is dark and menacing. An army of HR consultants marches through the floor of the investment bank. The worker bees are alarmed and rightfully so. More than half of them are going home without jobs to return to tomorrow. One of those hit by the layoff is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk analyst who was close to breaking open what we now know was one of the horrible truths behind the financial crisis. Investment banks were leveraged beyond reason but that was OK because the math added up – until it didn’t. As Dale leaves the building with an escort, he hands over a thumb drive to his co-worker, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). Dale tells Peter to “be careful”. Peter digs into the numbers and starts plugging away. He cracks the code and stares at numbers that show his employer soon losing more money than the firm is worth. the matter is quickly escalated up the food chain. The moments are intense, as the soundtrack never lightens the mood and every character realizes what is at stake, not just for them personally or even as a bank but for the entire US economy, if not world economy.
The cast is stacked. As The Company Men taught me, you can still make a miserable movie with top notch talent. Margin Call doesn’t disappoint. Everyone is on top of their game and no one hams it up, not even Kevin Spacey who plays a sales manager. In fact, this may be one of Kevin Spacey’s best performances in years. Instead of playing the smarmy know-it-all boss, Spacey takes on a multi-dimensional character.
The film is dialogue heavy, not quite at Glengarry Glenn Ross levels though. There are moments where points are being made through conversations between two characters, but never so much so that it feels forced. Writer and director, J.C. Chandor, does a good job of mixing up the scenery, which is a big challenge in a film that revolves around a 24-hour period of time and in a single location. He gives his characters reasons to move beyond the office building and makes good use of that variety.
The tone never changes throughout, for better or worse. It’s a slow burn of a film. Certain characters seem to grow the 24 hour time span while others start a new path in their life that is likely to be filled with regret. The ending is as sad and poignant as one can imagine without resorting to cheap plot twists. Margin Call serves as an admirable tale for our times.