Directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore
“Margin Call” tracks 24 hours in the life of a Wall Street investment firm on the brink of the 2008 economic collapse. The film has its clunky moments, but for the most part it’s a shrewd thriller that showcases some terrific performances.
The action begins when an entry-level risk analyst (Zachary Quinto) discovers, upon studying overlooked data, that his firm is sitting on heaps of worthless assets. He makes the discovery late at night, but it’s dire enough to bring in his boss, who brings in his boss, and so on.
The next thing you know, middle-of-the-night meetings are being called among the firm’s top executives as everyone processes the terrifying reality that Wall Street is about to implode.
Difficult decisions must be made, and inevitably fingers are pointed. Kevin Spacey, who plays the head of the risk management department, tries to be moral, while his boss (Simon Baker) just toes the company line. The CEO (Jeremy Irons), who earns $86 million a year, is the most blatantly self-serving.
To be clear, director J.C. Chandor is intentionally messing with definitions of morality, since even the so-called moral characters are earning obscene wages — the irony being that the more money they earn, the more clueless they are about the mechanics of the firm’s financial transactions. “Speak like you’re talking to a young child,” the CEO says when he asks Quinto’s character to explain what’s going on.
The story might seem a bit facile, but then again it’s no small feat to craft a thriller out of financial minutiae. Chandor pulls it off by making this a character-based movie, and Spacey in particular gives the most authentic performance we’ve seen from him in a while. Some of the dialogue sounds like speechifying, but it still hits home.