Anyone still perplexed about the motivations of the Occupy Wall Street movement need only watch Margin Call to understand where all that anger stems from. With the claustrophobic intensity of a great play, Margin Callspans 24 hours at a Wall Street investment bank on the eve of the 2008 market crash, and begins in a tense atmosphere as a large number of traders are summarily sacked. Once these losers are flushed away, head trader Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey, in a complex and satisfying performance) comes out of his office to offer a morale-boosting pep talk to the rattled survivors.
The camera then follows Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), just-fired head of risk management, who is being escorted out of the building. As the elevator doors are closing he hands a memory stick to an underling and advises him to “be careful.” What’s on the stick proves to be a radioactive analysis of how their firm has so over-extended itself buying junk mortgages prior to their being repackaged and resold, that this toxic debt now surpasses the net worth of the entire company. When the junior analyst grasps the implications, he alerts his boss, precipitating a late-night damage-control session.
There are denials and mutual recriminations as these sharks in silk suits try to position themselves on the right side of a looming financial apocalypse. They are plausible, all-too-human villains in a well-plotted financial thriller that makes us understand how the so-called “casino economy” could provoke insanely reckless greed. And Margin Call never lets the characters get overshadowed by the abstruse technicalities of high finance (as is not uncommon on Wall Street, the junior analyst is literally an ex-rocket scientist who has put his brilliant mathematical brain at the service of the financial sector because “frankly, the money is so much better.”)
The script lays out the firm’s income hierarchy, from $250,000 for a 23-year-old junior analyst to an upper-management boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany, A Beautiful Mind), who makes 10 times that. Will itemizes to his underlings how cars, a mortgage, dining out, and $80,000 for hookers gobble up most of that huge salary. “Luckily, the hookers are deductible as an entertainment expense,” he adds, in a nice touch of black comedy.
It becomes apparent just how desperate the situation is when the bank’s president, the suave and magisterial John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), choppers in at 3:00 am to preside over an emergency meeting of the board. With billions of dollars at stake, Tuld proposes an enormously cynical strategy that, if successful, will save much of the firm’s money – but at a shocking cost. By the film’s end, a literal and metaphorical grave is being dug, and the sound of the shovel scraping harshly against dirt is haunting indeed. M
Margin Call ★ ★ ★ ★
Directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto
R – 107 minutes
Continues at the Uni 4
As the winds of economic distress howl around the globe, it’s time to seek the cheer of a friendly pub and a tasty seasonal beer. Canoe Club has just brought out their classic Winter Gale Ale, a spicy and potent charmer with notes of cinnamon, clove and ginger. Dark amber in colour and brimming with flavour, it offers thorough – albeit temporary – respite from the storms of even a harsh day.