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JC Chandor's "Margin Call"

"Explaining how these guys justified their rapacious and immoral behavior to themselves is not the same thing as excusing it."

"Sure to be drowned out by the drum circles at Occupy Wall Street, writer-director JC Chandor's lifeless Margin Call depicts roughly 36 hours at an unnamed Manhattan investment firm at the dawn of the 2008 financial freak-out," begins Melissa Anderson in the Voice. "Chandor's debut feature audaciously asks us to empathize with obscenely overpaid risk analysts and their bosses, a gambit that fails not only because of what's happening at Zuccotti Park, but largely because his characters are little more than mouthpieces for blunt speechifying and Mamet-like outbursts."

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir isn't so quick to dispatch Margin Call to the disc-pile of history. For one thing, he notes that it "features one of Kevin Spacey's best screen performances as the firm's middle-aged ace salesman, trapped between his longtime loyalty and his waning sense of ethics. But explaining how these guys justified their rapacious and immoral behavior to themselves is not the same thing as excusing it. There's a modest but growing library of movies that either soul-search the dark national mood or try to answer the 'how did we get here?' question, and a few that try to do both. Largely, of course, I'm talking about nonfiction films like Charles Ferguson's righteously angry Inside Job, which looks in retrospect like an Occupy Wall Street call to arms, or The Corporation, a prescient and remarkable documentary from the Canadian duo Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar that didn't get much of a look on its 2004 release and very much deserves a new life. Here's what I wrote about it back then: 'This is a radical and didactic work, and its premise at first may seem outlandish: The modern corporation, which has been legally endowed with many of the rights and conditions of personhood, is in fact a psychopathic personality, constitutionally incapable of doing good or caring about others. But the longer you sit and watch the movie, the more irresistible the conclusion becomes.' That makes an excellent backdrop for Margin Call, which captures a group of men (and one woman, an excellent if modest role for Demi Moore) who are neither good nor evil in themselves, dealing with a rapidly unfolding crisis against a context of total ruthlessness and amorality."

"Margin Call unfolds over 24 hours, give or take, and it rarely ventures out of the Manhattan office building in which its unnamed firm is based," writes Alison Willmore for Movieline. "Eric Dale (a very good Stanley Tucci) is let go that day, escorted out by security per corporate mandate, his phone already shut off. On his way down, he hands what he was working on to junior analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who plugs in some holes in Eric's research and uncovers the fact that the firm's been working outside its own risk algorithms for the last few days and is poised to lose everything in an increasingly unstable market headed for a crash. Margin Call's high-powered cast — Kevin Spacey oversees the trading floor, Paul Bettany is his right hand man, and Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Penn Badgley and Aasif Mandvi fill other roles up and down the corporate ladder — adds to the seductive air of the whole environment. These people are painfully smart and so sleek in their pricey suits, and if they all seem to be miserable workaholics, well, that's the price of being on top of the world."

"It is hard to believe that Margin Call is Mr Chandor's first feature," writes AO Scott in the New York Times. "His formal command — his ability to imply far more than he shows or says and to orchestrate a large, complex drama out of whispers, glances and snippets of jargon — is downright awe inspiring…. Margin Call is a thriller, moving through ambient shadows to the anxious tempo of Nathan Larson's hushed, anxious score. It is also a horror movie, with disaster lurking like an unseen demon outside the skyscraper windows and behind the computer screens. It is also a workplace comedy of sorts. The crackling, syncopated dialogue and the plot, full of reversals and double crosses, owe an obvious debt to David Mamet's profane fables of deal-making machismo. Hovering over all of it is the dark romance of capital: the elegance of numbers; the kinkiness of money; the deep, rotten, erotic allure of power."

More from Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3.5/4), David Edelstein (New York), Ben Kenigsberg (Time Out Chicago, 2/5), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 3/5), Charles H Meyer (Cinespect), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe, 2.5/4), Mary Pols (Time), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 3/5), Dana Stevens (Slate), Scott Tobias (AV Club, B) and Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times). Earlier: Reviews from Sundance and New Directions / New Films.

Interviews with Chandor: Michael M Grynbaum (NYT) and ST VanAirsdale (Movieline). Benjamin Wallace talks with Quinto for New York.

Updates, 10/22: "Margin Call manages to do what almost no book, blog, newscast or Senate hearing has adequately done for the American people: to explain not just how the financial crisis happened (which financial giants failed in what order, which government entities bailed them out, etc), but rather, to explain why it happened." Daniel Krauthammer in the New Republic on the "collective action problem. If no individual person or firm's actions can make a difference, the only reasonable thing to do is assume everyone else will follow their most selfish (and possibly destructive) instincts. Everyone has an incentive to follow the worst path they suspect others of following, and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy…. The difficult truth is that with systemic failures like the one that caused our current economic crisis there is no one to blame because everyone is to blame. The only enemy in Margin Call is the system itself."

"Margin Call is one of the strongest American films of the year and easily the best Wall Street movie ever made," writes the New Yorker's David Denby, whose 2004 book American Sucker chronicled his own disastrous investment in over-hyped technology stocks at the height of the doctor boom. "Chandor's only obvious qualification is that his father spent forty years at Merrill Lynch, which, like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, destroyed itself with an excess of mortgage-backed securities and finally, in 2008, subsided, at a bargain rate, into the arms of a wealthier firm. Chandor is a beginner, but, to my ears, the terse, generally understated, yet sometimes barbarously rude language feels exactly right. I would guess that he has studied David Mamet's work, digesting the dramatic value of repetition and silence in, say, Glengarry Glen Ross, along with the play's stunned outrage and the characters' strangely displaced, almost disembodied reactions as some appalling reality swings into view."

Update, 10/24: "Although it has the title and Wall Street setting of a doomsday financial cliffhanger (I anticipated something akin to Alan J Pakula's Rollover, with trading floors going mad as dominos tumble worldwide), it's actually more of a mood piece, a tone poem tolling that the Time has Come," blogs James Wolcott. "Some have said that Margin Call is the movie Wall Streeters need to see to understand why the Occupy Wall Street movement has taken hold, to understand the damage they've done. It's a noble sentiment, but pointless. Wall Streeters at the apex understand what's happened since 2008, even if they haven't personally suffered; it's not that they can't see, but that they don't care…. Crash after crash after avaricious crash is built into the binge-and-purge organism of investment capitalism, as Jeremy Irons points out while having a lordly breakfast at his little table with the panoramic skyline view of morning Manhattan lying before him. He isn't engaging in Gordon Gekko grandstanding. The mood of Margin Call is too melancholy for that. From its opening frame, it has the gravity of a funeral for a death that hasn't yet happened, the suspended pause before the long drop down."

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