Margin Call delivers economic disaster in the comfort of home

In the years to come, there will likely be many films which tie themselves into 2008’s economic collapse.  For now, with recovery still inching along and dominoes continuing to fall, it’s reasonable to believe that audiences aren’t too eager to revisit capitalisms’ darkest days.  So it was without much fanfare that JC Chandor’s debut feature, Margin Call, slipped into UK cinemas in early 2012.  The home release now gives those who missed it the first time around a chance to catch Margin Call’s terrific cast at work in this Oscar nominated stock market thriller.

An unnamed global financial institution based in Manhattan is filled with some big name stars as a landscape changing financial crisis begins to unfold.  Any film that can send Stanley Tucci packing within the first fifteen minutes had better have some serious talent waiting in the wings and Margin Call doesn’t disappoint.  With Kevin Spacey comfortably stepping into another besuited head honcho role and Paul Bettany liaising between the low level grunts and the major players, there’s no shortage of alpha males brimming with (over) confidence.  That’s even before Jeremy Irons steps in to assume control of a situation that threatens to bring the entire company crashing to the ground.  With Simon Baker’s shark-like executive and Demi Moore straining to be heard in a sea of testosterone-fuelled arrogance, Chandor has assembled an impressive ensemble cast that clashes effortlessly, yet without any one member overplaying their hand.  The end result may be a given, but Margin Call presents a compelling, balanced peek into the choices investment bankers have to make and their motivations for doing so.  The general public may not be clamouring for a fair depiction of the 21st century’s most vilified profession, but that’s part of Margin Call‘s point.

It’s Spacey’s Sam who offers the fullest, most humanised portrayal of a businessman stuck between a rock and a hard place.  The question of “the right thing for who?” is often raised and Margin Call does a great job at highlighting the difficult questions that most would struggle to answer honestly.  Sam is neither without ethics, nor ambition so it becomes easy to see how black and white quickly bleeds into grey as a result.  With a broken marriage and a dying dog, Sam is a long way from the bravado typified by Bettany’s Will, who has happily blown his considerable earnings on the highlife and hookers.  Still, most everyone involved is painted in a somewhat sympathetic light due to the crushing pressure they face.  Even the CEO (Irons), who takes a hard-line approach, applies a logic that proves difficult to argue with.  The trio of Bettany, Spacey and Irons is excellent as they bring to life three powerful, but very different men, forced to react to the most professionally disastrous of situations.  Tucci is as reliable as ever in his small, but important role.  Moore doesn’t get much to do here, but she carries a presence that matches that of her male co-stars.

Chandor’s script, which received a best original screenplay nod from the Academy, benefits from a refusal to dumb its content down and Chandor’s personal experience, as his father worked for Merrill Lynch for 40 years.  While Margin Call doesn’t absolve traders of their responsibility, there’s clearly no interest in demonising them either.  It’s unfortunate that more time isn’t provided to getting to know some of the bigwigs a bit better.  Other than Sam and Will, only Zachary Quinto’s Peter has any real backstory;  one that is used solely to illustrate how intelligent, well-meaning people can find themselves in such a tricky career.  Still, Margin Call is quite effective in achieving its aims.  Chandor and director of photography Frank DeMarco rely heavily on narrow depth of field as, quite literally, the characters are constantly presented as the focal point of the film.  This style also reflects the narrow focus taken, by those very characters, which has led the financial world to the brink of complete turmoil.

Both the DVD and Blu-ray share the same bonus features, which includes a commentary track with Chandor and producer Neal Dodson,  two deleted scenes (with and without commentary), a brief making-of featurette and a photo gallery.  It’s not the most exciting set of extras, but it’s always nice to see both editions get equal treatment.  While Margin Call won’t contain anyone’s favourite cinematic characters, it’s a solid film across the board.  Exceptional performances and a strong, if emotionally vacant, script result in a quality drama that may not be to everyone’s taste (beware: thinking may be required), but stands tall amongst its peers and as a great debut for Chandor.


Margin Call is available on DVD and Blu-ray 12 November.

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