As Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is dismissed from a high ranking banking job, he passes on a file of research to a juniour employee Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). What Sullivan finds in the file is damning; the risks the company has been taking have completely destabilised it, and the CEO (Jeremy Irons) is flown in to make some tough decisions.
For those of us effected by the 2008 banking crisis – and that really means every adult in Western society – Margin Call makes for some tough viewing. While we have been looking at the big picture as it effects us, this film looks at the microcosm; a bank on the brink of collapse. Writer/director J.C Chandor has first hand experience of what it is like to be involved in such a crisis on an intimate level; his father was a trader at Merill Lynch for 30 years, and it is this experience that allows him to tell the story with such an even hand.
Blame goes out the window as the heads of the company try to figure out how to save themselves. Some are selfish, like Seth (Penn Badgley) – a young trader who appears to have no sympathy for the plight of people who got in over their heads, until trouble comes knocking at his own door – and John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), the CEO of the company who makes ruthless decisions in order to save himself. For the most part, however, the small group of people involved in this crisis are all too aware of the repercussions of their actions.
There is an interesting parallel drawn between the fate of the company and the people whose jobs are on the line, and the fate of Sam Rogers’s (Kevin Spacey) dog. As the crisis is announced, Sam reveals that his dog is dying, and by the end of the film, the infected company has ailed, and so has Sam’s dog. This brings the story down to a human level as Sam buries his dog; he is devastated by the loss of his companion, but under this grief lies a layer of despair at what he has allowed the company to do.
The pace of the film is actually quite gentle; the action takes place over a 24 hour period, but once the problem is unearthed, swift action must be taken. There are no scenes of panic, however, instead the film relies heavily on dialogue and manages to convey a sense of urgency, without ever talking down to the audience.
The cast assembled for Margin Call are without compare. Here are acting heavy weights including Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci all sharing screen time and conveying this story with grace. While Zachary Quinto is the young analyst who discovers the problem, and is consumed with fear over his future, the emotional heart actually lies with Kevin Spacey. This is a decent man who is forced into an impossible situation. The audience identifies with him as he faces off with Jeremy Irons (in some magnificently acted and directed scenes) and tries to save the people on the ground. Demi Moore is wonderfully understated, as are the rest of the cast, but as the only woman who has more than a moment on screen, she conveys the message that while this may be a male dominated profession, the women are equally – if not more – ruthless than their male counterparts.
Margin Call is a tense, uncomfortable look at the decisions of the few and how these impacted the many. The film is propelled by a simple yet touching script and powerhouse performances from all involved.