While a dramatization of events at a bank during the recent financial crisis was inevitable, the post-Christmas timing feels a little cruel. However, featuring a cast so acclaimed you could probably base a drinking game around how many Oscars or Oscar-nominations they have, an awards season release was inevitable and sets Margin Call as a film which has a lot of potential to deliver.
Opening with mass unemployment, it’s not long after being introduced to Stanley Tucci’s risk assessment executive Eric Dale before he too is shown the door. From their use of specific language and cold indifference, it’s clear he is neither the first nor the last to go, but before he leaves he hands a flash drive with his current work on over to young employee Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). While Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) tries to convince him to go out, he stays in the office to work on Eric’s old project, and discovers something that ends up getting passed along a lengthy chain until eventually they get their boss to decide what to do, starting with Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), then Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), following on to Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and eventually John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). It sounds like a recipe for a confusing mess of a film. Surprisingly, it’s Bettany, one of the few older men in this without an Oscar nod who ties the piece together. His character could be criticised of being a little too stereotypical of the reckless banker, but he manages to make himself a charismatic presence, balancing existing as a figure of admiration to the younger bankers while still keeping up a rapport with Spacey. It’s a shame the film is only an hour fifty, as while Spacey’s performance is no American Beauty, he manages to make his co-star shine in nearly all of his scenes, particularly when sparring with Irons’ indifferent CEO John Tuld, in contrast to a forgettable Demi Moore performance.
JC Chandor’s directing clearly displays a lot of faith in his cast, using a large amount of close-ups to catch every movement of their face. At times, the younger stars seem to struggle here, slightly less convincing than their senior co-stars, yet few actors their age could compare favourably to such Oscar winners. While Penn’s character Seth is not a million miles away from his normal bookish roles, the touch of a playboy side he gets to show makes for interesting and entertaining viewing. Often he successfully inserts a hint of a dry or dark sense of humour to his scenes that provides a touch of much needed levity when dealing with what could be dull subject matter. When things get tougher however, his calm façade is broken to show deeper emotion. In contrast, Quinto’s banker is a much more restrained, sensible and moral kind of fellow, suffering slightly from the limited range in which he’s given to work. While it’s one of the oldest tricks to pair two contrasting characters to allow them to bounce broader contrasting ideas off each other, it’s still used because it’s still effective. Their naivety however, can get a little grating, but it does help display their youth, albeit in a ham-fisted kind of manner.
On paper, Margin Call sounds like it should be a slow and sleep-inducing type of film, a cynical cash-in on a financial crisis or just designed to be Oscar-bait, but thanks to a reasonable length, an excellent cast and a tight script creates an entertaining thriller.