“You know I can’t fucking read these things,” Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) barks at his subordinates after being called in past midnight to look at some charts describing the impending collapse of his company’s stock assets. He’s preoccupied with his dying dog back home, but admitting later that his rise to great heights within the financial system has largely been due to an obliviousness that’s served him well. This puts Rogers in the uncomfortable company of much of the American public, though with a much better view.
What’s fascinating and potentially alienating for some about “Margin Call,” a taut, talky thriller that takes place almost exclusively on the 42nd floor of a Wall Street high-rise, is how rarely those people are considered during a frenzied 24 hours when a brokerage realizes it’s on the verge of collapse along with the rest of the financial sector in the fall of 2008. During an unusual excursion outside, one of the young day traders (Penn Badgley) can only wonder aloud from the back of the cab, “Look at these people wandering around, not knowing what’s about to happen,” but they are always off to the side in J.C. Chandor’s directorial debut.
Badgley’s Seth Bregman is en route to the brownstone of his former boss Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who just hours earlier handed off a flash drive to a co-worker, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), after being downsized with the ominous last words, “Be careful.” A physics major at MIT who opted for a more lucrative career field, Sullivan quickly uncovers what Dale was referring to, a formula that predicts the brokerage will be overleveraged in the days ahead, a result that leads many of his superiors to believe if the firm is to survive, unloading its toxic assets on unsuspecting traders might be the only way out.
Vague on details regarding the company or the reasons for its impending demise, the film is far more meticulous in painting the possible final hours for this company that unfolds almost like a reverse werewolf tale. As the night wears on, some humanity breaks through the silvery suits of Sullivan and Bregman’s superiors Rogers, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), all number crunchers who can only learn on an evening like this what they’ve really lost and it’s nothing that can be found on a ledger. Still, it speaks volumes that Sullivan, who is referred to by the higher-ups as the “rocket scientist,” is the moral center of the film, only because some sense of innocence comes with his relative inexperience and Quinto’s calm presence offsets the whirlwind around him.
Despite an unnecessary coda in the final five minutes, Chandor doesn’t sugarcoat the downward spiral of all involved and since the outcome seems inevitable, most of the tension is derived from the cold, crisp dialogue of the script. Spacey and Bettany, in particular, who haven’t had such strong material to work off of in some time, make the most of it in roles that don’t call for bombast of grand speeches — that’s what Jeremy Irons’ slithery top dog John Tuld is called in for — but the far trickier and raw power of those unruly, exhausted conversations one has with people they only know from sharing an office and are unsure they’ll still be sitting across from them the next day.
Of course, it’s likely everyone going into “Margin Call” knows what happens the next day, even if they don’t already know the fates of the film’s characters, but it’s the internal struggle that no one outside of such a crisis could know that the film gets just right and even if our pocketbooks are poorer for it, our overall understanding is richer.
"Margin Call" will open in limited release on October 21st and will also be available on VOD.