Film Review: Margin Call

An investment firm facing extinction in the 2008 fiscal crisis has less than a day to navigate its inevitable crash. Writer-director J.C. Chandor's debut feature is as powerful as it is topical.

First presented at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Margin Call generated immediate interest, as its presentation of a Wall Street firm crashing and burning could not have been more cogent to present circumstances. The film’s astute depiction of insiders dealing with cataclysmic financial disaster generates constant suspense as well as never-faltering anxiety.

Writer-director J.C. Chandor's father spent 40 years as a mid-level investment banker, which helps explain the thorough control Chandor has over this material. In fact, Margin Call provides a more intimate tour of the business than both of Oliver Stone's Wall Street films combined.

The ensemble cast is as good as it gets—with the minor exception of Paul Bettany's wandering American accent. They turn what might have been a deluge of meaningless figures and technical terms into dialogue of Hitchcockian tension. Like the master, Chandor allows the threat to remain ongoing but unspoken. At every moment we anticipate bloodshed and violence, but the only death in the film is that of a dog. Kevin Spacey, who plays the dog’s owner, Sam Rogers, with an honest dignity, sheds more tears for his animal than anyone offers for thousands of clients who are about to be sold down the river.

British-born Bettany’s Will Emerson is possibly the most emotional executive on display, There are moments when he literally takes his life to the edge. Jeremy Irons is brilliantly cast as the company owner in the unique position of having the actual power to make decisions. How he calmly plucks items of information to exploit for his own purpose both flatters and irritates his underlings. Zachary Quinto as the highly educated Peter Sullivan is closest to a conventional young executive. It is his after-hours work, in fact, that leads to a revelation that disaster is only hours away. Simon Baker's preening Jared Cohen may be the one employee too charming to dismiss, although what his strategic contributions are remains a mystery. Demi Moore as Sarah Robertson gives her toughest and yet most restrained performance to date. Sarah sees little hope for her future, but is willing to play the scapegoat as long as it pays, and it better pay a lot. The entire ensemble is unusually masterful, and it would not be a surprise if an Oscar nomination or two comes their way.

The look of the film is consistently authentic. Every set-up seems like an actual broker’s office, but cinematographer Frank DeMarco has found a creative, just slightly off-center way to shoot them. Production designer John Paino creates workrooms dense with computer monitors, and a range of offices that combine industrial lighting with sterile opulence. Editor Pete Beaudreau and Chandor achieve a hectic pace. Any audience willing to follow the economic labyrinth now scaring investors in America's volatile stock market will discover no slow patches here.