Self-preservation is an instinct we laud in our heroes, but what about the corporate hucksters of “Margin Call,” J.C. Chandor’s engrossing thriller about a financial firm about to face the music for years of reckless mismanagement?
These are the white-collar freeloaders whose unchecked greed will bring down the economy, leaving millions without the homes they bought with sucker loans they could never pay back. From the panic we see in the swindlers’ passionless eyes — as they crunch numbers that no longer compute, realizing the fraud they have perpetrated is about to be exposed — we know this is no trivial setback.
This is a meltdown on par with Chernobyl. The bomb drops after-hours, following a too-familiar afternoon of layoffs. From there, the fallout rises, from Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley’s low-level risk evaluators to the top-floor penthouse, where Jeremy Irons presides over his soon-to-crumble empire with a moral indifference bordering on nihilism.
At every step, we see the rats scurrying to save their own hides. It’s every rat for himself, and though there will be no survivors, no golden parachutes to buffer their fall, there is still money to be made off the smoldering ashes of a company that was, just 24 hours earlier, considered a viable commodity.
Should these hustlers compound their failings so brazenly as to liquidate their assets, selling off the consolidated loans they now recognize as worthless? Why not? It’s a shameless betrayal of public trust, guaranteed to accelerate the crash of an economy already headed for the toilet. But if they can make a few bucks in the process, before the stink hits the streets, what’s to stop them?
The natural temptation is to decry their ethical bankruptcy and see them as the reptilian architects of a country’s decline. Yet one of the movie’s provocative touches is how cleverly Chandor maneuvers us into their corner.
During this one night of sleepless game-planning, with all hands scrambling to finesse a crisis beyond their control, we take up their cause. Some make it easier than others: In Sam (Kevin Spacey), a self-obsessed middle manager with a flexible conscience, we find not a heartless parasite but a man struggling to survive a maelstrom.
Like his fellow suits — including Paul Bettany’s soulless company shill and Demi Moore’s soon-to-be-scapegoated fall gal — he can be cold, calculating and willfully oblivious to the damage he leaves behind. But Spacey, in a tightrope performance that recalls his best work, masterfully invites our sympathy. When Sam finally hits bottom, we give it grudgingly, but without hesitation.
Starring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes