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When the starting bell of J.C. Chandor’s directorial career rang, Margin Call is the film that he came storming out of the gate with. Difficult to define in established genre terms, it lies somewhere between financial thriller and docu-drama, taking place over 36 fast-moving hours on the brink of 2008’s stock market meltdown.
Some casual knowledge of Wall Street may be helpful in getting a grasp on the intricacies of the plot (to avoid pausing for Wikipedia checks), the broad strokes are: an analyst has discovered that a large percentage of the bank’s holdings are almost worthless and drastic action needs to be taken to save the firm, but at the expense of their clients and the marketplace at large.
Armed with Chandor’s Oscar-nominated screenplay and an ensemble cast of Hollywood heavyweights, Margin Call layers gripping bite and tense atmosphere over 107 minutes of white-collar manoeuvres and boardroom discussions of mortgage-backed securities. You know you’ve got a film of exceptional performances when the ever-reliable Paul Bettany (showcasing a distractingly strange mix of Cockney / Etonian / Anglo-American / Mainland European accents) is the weakest link in the chain.
Jeremy Irons exercises his commanding presence as the firm’s CEO; Simon Baker and Demi Moore give nuance to corporate backstabbing; Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci are emotionally weary executives; Zachary Quinto and Penn Bagley are young hot-shots being taken on an all-night ride through the borderline criminal world of financial salvage. While the cast shines, Chandor’s characterisation deserves equal praise as he paints his range of employees with full depth and heart. He avoids the typical depiction of “evil Wall Street drones”, as the questionable morality of their work speaks for itself through the narrative. Instead, Chandor shows these men and women as exceedingly human individuals, entrenched in a system of greedy self-preservation that influences decent people into making ethically-bankrupt decisions for the good of the firm.
It is no wonder why Margin Call earned J.C. Chandor numerous “Best First Film” awards in 2011 – excellently shot, tremendously performed, and intelligently written, Margin Call deserves to be seen by a wider audience.
Margin Call is available to stream on Netflix in the UK & USA.