Sunday, 15 January 2012

Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011) Review

Simon Baker stars in the gripping financial drama Margin Call (2011)...

Shot over an incredible 17 days, J.C. Chandor's Margin Call is the first fictionalized account of 2008's global financial meltdown, and it makes an essential bedfellow with Oscar-winning recession doc Inside Job (Ferguson, 2010). The story (written by Chandor between job interviews) operates over a 36-hour period, beginning with the morning that 80% of an unnamed investment firm's workforce are laid off. Among them is Eric (Stanley Tucci), a senior analyst who accepts the news of his departure with admirable poise. Upon leaving the building Eric slips a USB drive into the hands of Peter (Zachary Quinto), a junior analyst who scans its inventory and establishes the formula for economic collapse. Supervisor Will (Paul Bettany) and floor manager Sam (Kevin Spacey) are soon on task, and we are reassured by how efficiently this information makes its way up the ladder. Within hours the company's CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), has been helicoptered in, but it becomes apparent that his position has been earned through a combination of loyalty and luck. What were we expecting? Tuld's job is to manage. There's no requirement that he understand the business.

Irons, whose gaunt features put me in mind of his Dead Ringers (Cronenberg, 1988) role, clearly relishes the part of this executive Nosferatu, whose maxim is simple: Be first, be smarter, or cheat. A juicy monologue about the systematic demolishing and rebuilding of the financial infrastructure (which actually makes sense) is a treat for his tongue and our ears, and its complete lack of sentiment stings. Like The Social Network (Fincher, 2010) before it, this is a film about men sitting in rooms arguing about business, but becomes compelling in how it's about that. Chandor understands that the cold, glass interiors of this crumbling firm are like a suffocating corral for its workers, but also reflects on the people outside - those who see into this carnivorous world, oblivious to the implication of each mouse click. Our fate was hidden in plain sight, these transparent walls suggest, as the nightmare unravels across an open-plan space in which nobody can hide. Chandor's claustrophobic camerawork and low-level lighting evoke a suitably bleak atmosphere, and when the sun finally breaks over that iconic New York skyline we begin to understand the picture from both sides - from the position of the traders whose job it was to sell millions of units of worthless stock, to the thousands of blue collar families who were counted amongst the collateral.

Chandor manages with ease the impressive feat of having his cast hurl through monologues of intricate accounting jargon, but allowing us to comprehend it by the weight of their performances. The night is not charted by a timeline, but as the actors sweat more profusely, add two tempered springs to every precisely judged step, loosen the workaday nooses around their neck and add a "fuck" to the end of each sentence, we grasp that morning is edging ever-nearer. Quinto, Bettany and Spacey are the central trio, and their masterful turns allow us a human portal into the financial sharkpool. But Chandor doesn't exactly ask us to sympathize. Will is the film's most complex subject. On the surface he appears a greedy, throat-cutting go-getter, but deep down he possesses a structured moral code and acute sense of loyalty. Outside of the office block he appears affable and good-humored, revealing human interests and hobbies. We are given plenty of reasons to hate him, but this is a man who has worked for his wealth and makes no bones about how he's spent it (cars and hookers). Perhaps the reason I engaged with Will is for his complete lack of pretension and no-shit attitude, which are equally compelling and repulsive qualities. I suspect that the Will Emerson's of this world were not fired in 2008, but promoted, and for that fact we know that the same mistakes will be made twice. In that sense Margin Call might be looked back on as a sort of present-tense horror.

Margin Call is out in cinemas now.

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