Review: Margin Call

Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by:J.C. Chandor
Starring: Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Mary McDonnell
Released: March 15, 2012
Grade: A

J.C. Chandor graduated from college in 1996 and spent the first decade of his career directing commercials and music videos.  He’d tried to make the move into feature films without success.  Looking for a fresh start, he gave up on his filmmaking dreams and decided to enter the property market.  He spent three years transforming a commercial building in New York City into residential apartments.

I know how this story ends… and it’s hard not to smile.  I love rooting for the underdog.  Inspired by the 2008 global financial crisis and his own experiences with the real estate industry, a reinvigorated Chandor had the perfect idea for a movie.  Margin Call is the end result.  It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011 and it has been showered with praise ever since.  Chandor’s amazing journey culminated with a nomination for best original screenplay at last month’s Academy Awards.

It’s a subject matter close to my heart (so I’m a little biased) but Margin Call is a riveting drama that looks at 36 hours in the life of a huge investment bank that is on the brink of collapse.  The trouble begins when a young analyst (Quinto) takes a close look at some financial projections left to him by his ex-boss (Tucci).  The picture they paint is far from rosy.

Instead of confusing the audience with “financial speak”, Chandor finds a humorous way of informing the audience about the situation.  It begins when the Chief Executive Officer (Irons) calls a late-night meeting of his senior executives.  He asks the analyst to “explain it to me if I were a 6-year-old child or a golden retriever.”  He is paid more than $80m a year but it’s clear that he doesn’t know the intricacies of the business.

The analyst puts forward his bleak scenario.  The firm has invested in a large number of dodgy financial products which are almost worthless.  The only way of saving the company will be to offload them to unsuspecting investors before anyone is the wiser.  Tired and stressed, the executives have only a few hours to reflect on the gravity of the moment.  Any decision they make is likely to have huge consequences.

Margin Call features some of they year’s best dialogue.  The highlight for me was a scene in a car where senior trader Paul Bettany justifies the questionable actions of the firm to a young risk analyst played by Penn Badgley.  He talks about whether “fairness” is something that can ever be truly achieved and it will leave you with much to reflect upon.

With a script void of shouting matches and preachy monologues, J.C. Chandor makes the brave decision not to demonise these characters.  It’d be easy to portray them as greedy “monsters” without a single ounce of moral fibre.  Instead, he shows them as level-headed human beings who must decide if they should they put their own interests ahead of others.  In the end, you still may not like these guys… but that’s a conclusion that you should reach on your own.

It may be his first feature film but J.C. Chandor has pulled together an impressive ensemble cast.  Considering the film’s total budget was less than $4m, I’m guessing they all worked at rates well below their normal asking price.  Their participation is a testament to the sharp, intelligent script and they all get a chance to shine.  Not a single scene is wasted.

It’s only receiving a limited release in Australian cinemas but Margin Call is not to be missed.  It’s an engrossing, informative piece of cinema.