Margin Call (2011) review

Here is a film showing exactly what can be achieved with a tight script and an amazing cast. The film tells the story of the beginnings of the financial crisis brought about by the sub-prime mortgage lending practices of major banks. In this film we see things from the perspective of several characters working at a major (unnamed) bank. This partly fictionalised account nevertheless keeps things as real as possible and takes you through the several layers of this company and their involvement in the scandal that engulfed the entire banking sector.

The film takes place over one day and we start the morning of the first day with a huge number of people losing their jobs due to downsizing. This immediately clues you in to the dog-eat-dog attitude of this company, where everything is about the bottom line. One of those losing his job is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) who works in the Risk Management Department. Before leaving Dale hands over a pen-drive to one of his underlings Peter (Zachary Quinto) with the ominous words "be careful". Peter soon realises that what Dale has calculated is that the firm is operating at unsustainable levels of risk, and they are looking at a very sharp and sudden drop, with the firms potential losses projected to be more than the entire value of the company. He relays this message to his boss (Paul Bettany), who relays it to his manager (Kevin Spacey), who passes it on to his superior (Simon Baker), who has the unenviable task of informing the head of the company (Jeremy Irons). It is decided that the company will shift the entirety of its stock tomorrow, even though they know it is worthless. Not only will this irrevocably tarnish the company's reputation, it will mean almost everybody losing their jobs. Essentially they are talking about an act that is immoral and unforgiveable even among fellow capitalists.

While it may sound like a dry premise, and the majority of the film does involve men sitting in offices talking over figures, the script is exceptionally well written and there is just as much excitement here as in anything with gunfights and explosions. This is of course helped by the stellar cast, who do a fantastic job with their characters, each with their own particular personal beliefs, morality, and style. When they discuss what is about to happen you do get the sense that this is something of almost apocalyptic proportions.

The direction is also solid, creating some great sequences while never distracting from the main selling point which is the dialogue. Many scenes are simply conversations between two or three characters, but it is always kept fresh, either by changing the location or the way they are sat or standing to emphasise whatever the relationship happens to be. One scene in particular stands out when two characters are taking an elevator ride, discussing the shock that is about to hit the company, while a stone-faced cleaning lady stands between them waiting to get off. It is a kind of subtle humour that pervades the film.

I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in the events depicted in the film as it gives a great overview of what happened and in a way that is easy to understand and get excited about (although excitement may be the wrong word). Excellent performances and a great script ensure that there are few dull moments in this story.