Set on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis, Margin Call turns an investment firm's complicated actions of self-preservation into a crackling, accessible drama. At a Lehman Brothers-esque institution, a junior risk management analyst discovers that trading will soon exceed the firm's historical volatility levels, meaning the firm's loss from mortgage-backed securities will be greater than its entire worth. By going inside the financial hive without demonizing its players, this ensemble drama turns the pre-market crash wrangling into terrific suspense. With sharp direction from J.C. Chandor and solid work from Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore, Margin Call is a great sit.
A firing squad arrives on the trading floor of a New York City investment firm to send dozens of traders and risk analysts home. One of the unlucky many is Eric Dale (Tucci), the lead risk analyst for the firm, who slips his protégée Peter Sullivan (Quinto) a flash drive containing his current work as he is escorted from the building. Peter checks the data and realizes the firm's dilemma before verifying the results with fellow junior analyst Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) and fixed-income salesman Will Emerson (Bettany). When the numbers check out, Will calls in head of sales Sam Rogers (Spacey), who sounds the alarm that sends the head of securities (Baker), head of risk management (Moore) and the firm's CEO (Irons) scrambling to hold a midnight meeting.
The decision-making that follows is illustrative of the real-life antics that cost countless Americans their jobs, homes and securities. Margin Call takes a complicated, infuriating subject and makes it entertainment by coolly following firm CEO John Tuld as he directs his pawns to sell off the firm's toxic assets before anyone gets wind of the crisis. The action takes place largely inside the firm over a 36-hour period. When the CEO hears the news he sends Will scrambling to find Eric, who is off the grid after the company shut off his cell phone. Allegiances rise and fall within the firm as the finger pointing begins. Moore's icy risk management leader failed to adequately explain the gravity of Eric's claim that the firm was headed for trouble to Baker's flashy, young securities head. There are sacrifices, and not everyone makes it out alive. The young traders, who will never work in the industry again when their counterparts find out what they did, are offered a substantial bonus should they sell the majority of their assets.
Rarely are films this stocked with A-list actors more about the story than the egos. But here, each star inhabits his role without vanity to create a truly cohesive cast. Spacey, Irons and Quinto are especially good, and each successfully blurs the line between victim and villain. Margin Call can be upsetting; CEO Tuld's speech rationalizing the firm's actions hits a nerve and is a great piece of acting by Irons. The stock market is all a game to him, and it is one that the firm plays every day. This zero hour, like all the other hours, is just another move. Each of the film's characters is exceptionally well written, and even those with minimal screen time have motivation and personality. The film never casts stones but instead allows viewers to decide who may be redeemed. Margin Call is timely and compelling entertainment.
The 1.78:1/1080/AVC-encoded transfer is good despite its modest bitrate. Margin Call was shot with the RED One digital camera system, so the image is clean and crisp throughout. Detail is generally solid, and only rarely do scenes appear slightly soft. Skin tones are accurate, blacks are solid and colors are cool and nicely saturated. Margin Call may look a bit slick to the casual viewer, but this is a side effect of shooting digitally. No major issues with compression artifacts, noise reduction or aliasing occur.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is effective if a bit subdued. Dialogue is crisp and clear and the film features its share of directional dialogue. The score and minimal effects are nicely balanced, and viewers are placed amid a busy trading floor with the related sounds panning the entire sound field. English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
In the Commentary with Director and Producer, director Chandor and producer Neal Dodson discuss shooting, casting and writing the script, but gloss over most of the financial crisis background. Revolving Door: The Making of Margin Call (5:58/HD) is a brief, making-of piece, and Missed Calls: Moments with the Cast and Crew (1:06/HD) is nothing more than a few lighthearted moments on set. Also included are some Deleted Scenes (4:31/HD), available with commentary from Chandor and Dodson, and the From the Deck: Photo Gallery.
Margin Call goes deep inside a New York City investment firm as it prepares to set the market on a rapid downward spiral by selling worthless assets. This impressive ensemble drama features strong turns from Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto and Jeremy Irons, and makes its technical subject interesting and accessible. Margin Call is successful because it does not point fingers; the film merely follows the decisions that led to the 2008 financial crisis and turns the wrangling into entertainment. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.