Margin Call (2011)

Margin Call (2011)
  • Time: 107 min
  • Genre: Drama | Thriller
  • Director: J.C. Chandor
  • Cast: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons


A respected financial company is downsizing and one of the victims is the risk management division head, who was working on a major analysis just when he was let go. His protégé completes the study late into the night and then frantically calls his colleagues in about the company’s financial disaster he has discovered. What follows is a long night of panicked double checking and double dealing as the senior management prepare to do whatever it takes to mitigate the debacle to come even as the handful of conscientious comrades find themselves dragged along into the unethical abyss.


  • A terrific cast highlights “Margin Call,” a 2011 film by a then new director, J.C. Chandor, who also wrote this film. He’s assembled a great group to tell his story: Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, Will Bettany, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Penn Badgley.

    The movie starts with big changes taking place in a financial firm, with Eric Dake (Stanley Tucci) being let go. As he’s leaving, he hands a jump drive to one of the young men under him, Peter Sullivan (Quinto) and tells him to look it over and “be careful.” Peter looks it over later that night, all right, panics, and calls another associate, Seth (Badgley) and asks him to return to the office and bring their boss, Will (Bettany) who is drinking in the same nightclub.

    Peter, and Seth before him, has discovered that their volatility assumptions in their MBS portfolio are false, something that can destroy their company. They have a huge pile of assets worth much less than they thought. Selling them off will possibly hurt the firm’s reputation and the personal reputation of some of the brokers. But they have to do something.

    A huge meeting is called, with John Tuld (Irons), the head of the entire concern, coming in on a helicopter with another bigshot, Cohen (Baker) as they try to decide what to do.

    I just loved the entire cast, but not being a broker, and being someone who just by buying one share of stock seems to bring down large companies and cause the market to crash, the scariness of all this was sort of lost on me. Intellectually I understood their panic, but emotionally I couldn’t get into it. The most compelling part for me was the beginning, with a security guard escorting Tucci into his office to clean out his desk. Anyone in a corporation who has ever witnessed this or been victim of the firing process – your voice mail gone, your log-in no good, your phone cut off – knows how humiliating that is.

    The whole cast is wonderful. Quinto is excellent as a young man who stumbles on something, is rather dazed by it, and tries to stay calm, while Badgley’s character flips out – the two play well together. My favorite was Irons as a charming, eloquent, take-charge guy – you know exactly what he has the job he does. Spacey’s character, going through a personal crisis, is unsure and doesn’t like the decision made but puts on a brave face. Everyone is great and each character is well defined, because you can really see the mettle of people when they’re in a crisis.

    On that basis, this is a good movie, and if you know a lot about finances and brokerages, or were involved in the crash of 2008, you will love it. I was involved in both the 1987 and the 2008 crash – both times, I entered the market with a few bucks.

  • Margin Call is as much a dramatic-thriller as Drive (2011) is an explosive action flick. Be prepared, because if you think Margin Call is an out-and-out thriller about the financial crisis that enveloped the world in 2008, then you are mistaken.

    This J.C. Chandor film, his debut feature, is a slow but tightly-scripted picture that is completely dialogue-driven from start to end. Well, there are scenes of contemplative silence, and scenes with ambient sounds as the city switches off its lights for the night. But it is arguably the most wordy and dialogue-heavy film since The Social Network (2010).

    What a long night it would be, as you will see in this smart but occasionally boring film. There is some problem with pacing. It moves at a stately pace, as if something big is going to happen. But that something never happens.

    There is no particular sequence or dramatic set piece that truly stands out on its own. There is an obvious lack of suspense, though this is due in part to the nature of the story that is told. But that is not an excuse for not making a more engaging film that is insightful and entertaining at the same time.

    Most of the scenes are set within the confines of a boardroom or an office atop a tall building. The best part is that we have Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, and Stanly Tucci showing their dramatic chops in the same room. These are the key people who take up different high and low-ranking positions in an investment bank.

    Over the course of one night, they make a devastating discovery that we now know marks one of the earliest stages of the aforementioned financial crisis. The not so subtle reference of the film’s fictional investment firm to the Lehman Brothers is striking.

    It is the performances in Margin Call that save it from being mediocre. The acting is consistently good, with Spacey and Irons the more notable performers. Once again, Spacey plays a high-ranking boss like he did for the quite effective comedy Horrible Bosses (2011).

    Here, he trades a cynical attitude for a more moralistic one. And it is his “duel” with the firm’s selfish director, played by Irons, that comes close to being, at the very least, memorable. I can’t think of any other reason to catch this film other than its A-list cast.

    Director Chandor, who works in television, uses plenty of close-up shots of faces, sometimes not cutting away from them for quite some time, giving the film some form of introspection that provides a more human look at a decidedly man-made catastrophe.

    With the benefit of hindsight, Margin Call can be enlightening at times, and rewarding to the initiated, but folks who prefer more mainstream fare are encouraged to avoid this, though ironically, this is marketed as a mainstream thriller with a star-studded cast.

    GRADE: B-

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