The fortieth edition of New Directors/New Films kicked off with Margin Call, a stylish drama by first-time director J.C. Chandor centered on the global financial crisis of 2008. Unspooling through April 3 at Lincoln Center and MoMA, the annual ND/NF has become an essential stop for cinephiles who enjoy discovering a new generation of filmmakers (alums include Darren Aronofsky, Spike Lee, and Christopher Nolan) at an early juncture of promising careers.
Boasting a starry cast with the likes of Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, and Demi Moore, Margin Call trains a laser-like beam on the players at a giant Wall Street firm over a roughly twenty-four hour period preceding the world economic meltdown, taking them from horrified discovery of worthless securities, to the final move to dump the firm’s toxic assets, collateral damage be damned. Film opens during a bloodbath of layoffs, chief among them Stanley Tucci’s Eric Dale, head of the firm’s risk management. Though Dale protests he’s working on something important, he’s dismissed with “We appreciate your concern,” corporate speak for fuck off. Before leaving, Dale slips his USB drive to assistant and math whiz Zachary Quinto with the cryptic warning to “be careful.” To Quinto’s disbelief, though not ours, the numbers reveal the firm is overexposed and likely to take huge losses from assets they’re holding. Quinto cues immediate superior Paul Bettany, and the red alert travels up the chain to veteran trading-floor boss Kevin Spacey and his sidekick Simon Baker. The third act brings chairman Jeremy Irons choppering in to save the bank while triggering a chain reaction crash.
Margin grabs you from the opening frames: views of Manhattan’s monoliths presented as the fiefdom of Wall Street sharks and warped by the camera’s lens, speeded-up clouds boiling overhead, while an ominous shadow encroaches on the foreground. Chandor makes a virtue of the production’s limitations — smallish budget, virtually single setting — by locking his ensemble into a tight time frame and their chrome and blue-screened corporate home. Echoing David Fincher, he uses aural and visual ambiance to complement what is essentially a character study of vulpine hotshots colliding and maneuvering to turn the financial debacle to individual advantage. These folks have a moral awareness the size of a caper, yet there emerge marginally less villainous types: Quinto and co-junior Penn Badgely are neophytes, acting as the viewer’s conduit to the financial ruling class. Like a kid drugged on greed, Badgley spends down time speculating on how many millions his superiors pocket. In a misguided effort to humanize Spacey’s veteran trader, Chandor makes him a dog-lover – a bad move that discredits dog-lovers — while Tucci wistfully recalls his days as an engineer when he once did “something useful.”
The pervasive grimness is leavened by flashes of dark humor, like a running gag about the managers’ inability to grasp financial arcana. Spacey presses Quinto to explain the crisis “in plain English,” since he himself can’t read the screens. Irons amusingly orders a minion in plummy tones, “Speak to me as you would to a young child.” Another scene finds two overlords talking across a cleaning woman and her mops as if she doesn’t exist.
Margin announces the arrival of a gifted young filmmaker and a great director of actors. Spacey is vacuous yet conflicted, Bettany’s bravado is mixed with self-hatred, while Simon Baker in his pinstriped Armani gives the sense he’d mortgage his own mother. To its detriment, though, Margin is more interested in actorly turns and stylish flourishes than its characters’ malfeasance. Chandor’s Wall Street gamblers are just guys who, in the American way, are out to make gobs of money and somewhere along the way mistakes were made. The precise nature of those mistakes – or rather, sanctioned practices — are barely articulated in the film, assuming either a financially sophisticated viewer or the irrelevance of attempting to understand. Clarity and information are apparently old school. As a result, much of the dialog is near-gibberish, guys slinging around such code terms as tranches, credit default swaps and the like, and muttering “this one is very ugly.”
“We’re going to be left holding the biggest bag of shit in the history of capitalism,” says one titan. Somehow the enormity of that situation, the rampant greed that allowed it to happen, the damage to millions of little guys, and the continuing ascent of the perps are given short shrift in a film weighted toward sexy machismo. As the director said in the Q & A following the premiere at MoMA, “the film ended up being just a character study.” Fair enough — a feature need not come across as an anti-corporate screed. But harsher censure of the culprits would have lent this promising debut more gravitas.