Review: Margin Call (2011)

There’s a scene early on in J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call where Kevin Spacey’s manager, Sam Rogers, is sitting in his office staring out the window, wearily rubbing his eyes. As the film begins, a team of sharks hired to fire people have arrived and are cleaning house at the investment firm. The cut from the culling to Spacey suggests that Sam is having a hard time with the firings. However, when Will Emerson (Paul Bettany, in a good movie!) calls on him, Sam informs Will that his dog is dying. So his near-tears are for his pet, not for the human beings whose livelihood he’s helped terminate.

This sort of disconnect between, on the one hand, our expectations of neighbourliness and a shared belief in the common good and, on the other hand, how people actually treat and value their fellow human beings in business today is at the centre of Margin Call. Set over the course of a day and a half at a Wall Street investment firm, the film dramatizes precipitating events behind the 2008 financial meltdown and the subsequent Great Recession. Not surprisingly, there’s plenty here that will fan the righteous anger of those sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street, but, more interestingly, Chandor’s dry satire and cold detachment are miles away from the likes of a Michael Moore.

Take Spacey’s Sam Rogers again. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching Season 3 of House of Cards lately, but the early scene described above lead me to quickly peg Spacey’s character as an asshole. But, as the film progresses, Sam’s actually more sympathetic than his superiors. He’s committed to the firm, not just himself, or simply his paycheque and bonus. But then again, Sam’s decision late in the film, which he says is for the money, complicates a clear picture of an old-school, tough, yet decent financial man. And then once more, Chandor further complicates the character in the final scene, where we perhaps understand a bit more about why Sam cares about his dog so much.

Chandor’s commitment to both focused criticism and human complexity is Margin Call’s greatest strength. While the film’s nuances make this more than a protest movie, the film’s generic shifting—between satire, sad drama, and dark office comedy—holds our interest despite the slow pace. With a top notch ensemble cast, thoughtful camerawork, and subtle characters, Margin Call is interesting for more than just its financial crisis subject matter.

8 out of 10

Margin Call (2011, USA)

Written and directed by J. C. Chandor; starring Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Stanley Tucci, and Demi Moore.