Among the many virtues of Margin Call, the engrossing debut feature by writer-director J.C. Chandor, is its appreciation of this economic
implacability. Unlike the second Wall Street (or, for that matter, the first), the movie understands that financial markets aren't merely
tools to be wielded for purposes nefarious or benign, but vast and evolving entities in their own right, often inscrutable even to their purported
custodians. Chandor's film is not a tale of the plots and counterplots of conniving bankers. It is a disaster movie, in which even the Masters of the
Universe are running for their lives.
The movie depicts two days—and the long, intervening night—at a large investment firm loosely based on Lehman Brothers. The financial bubble is already
popping, but no one has yet heard the sound it makes, with the exception of veteran risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Before he can warn his
colleagues, however, Dale is offhandedly cashiered, in what is clearly not the firm's first round of layoffs. (As he tells the duo of Ryan-Bingham-like downsizers assigned to "ease his transition": "Look, I run risk management.
I don't see how that's a natural place to start cutting jobs.") On his way out of the building, Dale tosses a USB drive containing his unfinished
research to a young protégé, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who has escaped the corporate axe.
That night, as his fellow survivors head out to toast their good fortune, Sullivan stays behind to complete the analysis Dale had begun. It is, as he soon
recognizes, a harbinger of financial apocalypse. Sullivan summons his boss (Paul Bettany), who summons his boss (Kevin Spacey), who summons his boss
(Simon Baker), each fish bigger than the last, all the way up to the biggest fish in the pond: a primeval creature named Tuld, who arrives by
helicopter and is played by Jeremy Irons.
As we work our way up this food chain, one character after another seems set up as narrative foil or villain-in-waiting: Bettany's tough, crew-cutted
Brit, grinding Nicorette lozenges between his teeth as if they were competitors; Spacey's mid-level exec, pining for a sick dog while inured to the
human toll around him; Irons's sardonic, sepulchral CEO. Yet with a minor exception or two, there are no white hats or black hats to be found here,
merely modern-day shades of gray flannel. Chandor's film is less a portrait
of individual malfeasance than of systemic, cultural failure. His characters have made their moral compromises gradually, selling off bits of
themselves at a loss, piece by piece, until they find that their debts outweigh their assets and the only evident way out is to keep going.
The movie unfolds as a series of confrontations and collaborations between these characters, and though their outcomes are never much in doubt they are
charged with urgency and intelligence. There are discussions of blame (which runs, as ever, downhill); bouts of lofty rationalization; and weighings of
self-preservation against the public interest. (One need not be a student of the crisis to know how these turn out.) When Spacey warns of creating a panic in the markets, Irons responds drily, "If you're the first one out the door, that's not called panicking."