A line of grim-faced human resources representatives walk down the hallway of an unnamed Wall Street firm at the beginning J.C. Chandor’s debut film, Margin Call. Clad mostly in black, the HR team look like agents of death as they head past sterile white cubicles and single out nearly 80 percent of the floor’s workforce for layoffs. The firm’s 20-something young guns, Peter Sullivan (Dr. Spock, aka Zachary Quinto) and Seth Bergman (Penn Badgley), look on nervously as their boss Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is called forth. The following scene is like something out of Up in the Air (minus George Clooney and Anna Kendrick’s charm), as Dale is told in a coldly indifferent tone that he is to be let go after 19 years of service. Dale is handed a pamphlet outlining his severance package along with a guidebook detailing ways to help him through his “transition,” complete with palm trees and a sunny tropical shore on its cover. Just before heading to the elevator and leaving the building for good, Dale gives a flash drive containing what he had most recently been working on to Sullivan. “Be careful,” Dale says as the doors close before him.
It isn’t long before Sullivan begins to investigate Dale’s findings, only to realize that he has opened up a Pandora’s Box foretelling the 2008 financial collapse. The alarm is sounded, and soon the cavalry is called in, as members of the firm rush to the office for late-night clandestine meetings to determine how best to avoid disaster. Before too long, CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons, charmingly-sleazy) swoops in to announce that the firm will promptly sell off its more damaging assets before the markets can react. It shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to reveal that the plan effectively saves those at the top of the company’s hierarchy, despite damaging the firm’s relationships with its clients. While Tuld, executive Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), head of risk Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), and trading head Sam Rogers (a typically-great Kevin Spacey) were all aware of the impending implosion at the firm, Robertson is appointed to take the fall.
Who are the villains? The heroes? Chandor ensures that the delineations between right and wrong remain slightly skewed. Each character inhabiting the film’s monochromatic world of dark suits and white offices seems so disassociated from the tangible real-life impacts of his or her actions, which is partly what makes Margin Call so effective. These are people who are trapped by a system they helped create, caught in a limbo 30 stories above the streets where protesters are now currently demanding their pound of flesh from the “1 percent.”
Chandor (who also wrote the screenplay) has crafted an icily humorless film, in which the camera remains mostly stationary, focusing on hushed conversations between stony-faced Wall Street execs. Rarely do we catch a glimpse beyond the firm’s offices, and when we do, it is often a peak at an endless vista of skyscrapers viewed through office windows. In one scene, Bergman and Sullivan are driven through the streets of New York in search of the recently-fired Eric Dale. Staring at the young New Yorkers stumbling out of downtown Manhattan bars, the two men comment on how strange it is that the late-night revelers have no knowledge of the incoming financial tsunami about to hit. The two men do not necessarily express remorse or fear. They just drive off into the night, two cogs in the corporate machine.
My rating: ***
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