Crooked Bankers Season: Margin Call

“Do you care to know why I’m in this chair in front of you all. Why I earn the big bucks? I’m here for one reason and one reason alone. I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it. Nothing more. And standing here tonight I’m afraid that I don’t hear a thing. Just… silence”

(John Tuld, Margin Call)

WALL Street is supposed to be loud. Clanging cowbells and traders in braces barking orders into cell-phones. Like the golden bull that sits on the street outside, famously cordoned off from Occupy protesters, it’s loud and brash and can shoot steam from its nostrils.

Cinema’s enduring images of high finance are of macho wildness and debauched, Olympian excess. Gordon Gecko with his hair slicked back, giving us the ‘greed is good’ hard sell. Patrick Bateman chasing hookers with a chainsaw. DiCaprio and his knuckle-head buddies hurling midgets and huffing crack, The Wolf of Wall Street‘s long takes soaking in a trading floor jungle that is part fratboy riot, part religious mania. This weekend sees the release of Adam McKay’s The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’ 2011 bestseller, with Christian Bale, Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling injecting black dude comedy into the 2008 crash. J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call(2011), by contrast, takes the biggest financial fuck-storm in two generations, and makes it as boring as possible.

Margin Call takes place over a tense 36 hour period at an unnamed New York investment bank. Things have been pretty choppy in the market – tremors before the quake – and the firm is laying off large portions of its workforce, who trudge through corridors clutching their trademark chopping block boxes. Clipboard executioners hover like polite birds of prey. One of the casualties is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), head of the Risk Management division (a blackly ironic choice). From the beginning there is an air of exhaustion and soft trauma, a brittle atmosphere gleamed over by the comfort of corporate jargon. The firing squad thanks Dale for his 12 years of services, offers help for this ‘transition period’ and slides across a glossy brochure with a sailboat on the cover. Escorted out by security, he hands a USB stick of uncompleted work to risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and tells him to ‘be careful’.

After everyone clocks out for the day, Peter stays behind and finishes Dale’s project. Turns out the industry math which the bank has been using to measure the risk of their holdings, mostly securitized mortgage debt, is way, way off-base and the catastrophic effects of this are just around the corner. As Jeremy Irons’ deliciously mannered CEO John Tuld puts it, ‘the music is about to stop and we’re going to be left holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement in the history of capitalism.’ Executives are called in for emergency meetings and the decision is made: when business begins in the morning, the remaining traders are going to dump all of this excrement on whatever poor souls are willing to buy it, a financial fire sale that is going to decimate their reputation and kick-start the crash but, fingers crossed, ensure the company’s ultimate survival.

This is dramatic stuff: apocalyptic, airport paperback, ticking clock material. But Margin Call plays the whole thing like a parlour room drama, demure characters shuffling around corridors and meeting rooms, looking at screens and talking about graphs. Tucci, Irons, Quinto, Demi Moore and Paul Bethany are all reigned in (though Irons gets the odd flourish, because come on). Conversations are punctuated by large pockets of silence. There’s something very dissonant about handling the story and tone in this way, which somehow makes what’s happening even more disquieting and alarming. The night-time setting, washed out colouring, crisp digital photography and ambient string score foster a stuffy sense of unreality. ‘This is bizarre’ confesses the ruthless Head of Capital Markets (The Mentalist‘s Simon Baker, putting his limited emotional range to very good use). ‘It feels like a dream.’

The film’s sterile environment is a product of the dissociative state of mind which high finance is built on. The normal world of the common working man, the ones whose lives are about to be gutting by the events the film’s characters are instigated, exists just beyond the building’s glass panes, but it may as well be another planet. Here, people speak and think in the language of math and money, shuffling around numbers like the murmurings of a spell.

Even if you don’t want to admit it, there is something comforting about the idea that the people who bought and sold and securitized and collateralized your mortgage are larger-than-life characters. We harbour the hope, I think, that the things which feel dramatic to us also feel dramatic to the guys on the other end, even if they are sharks or crooks. You can (theoretically) take an asshole to court, but you can’t slap cuffs on an algorithm.

At one point in the dead of night, Margin Call pans slowly across the deserted office floor where Peter and his colleagues work, the screens still flashing with brightly coloured lines, silent except for the soft whirring of computer hardware, or maybe the cleaning lady’s vacuum. This is the empty half-live of life in late capitalism. In 2009, high-frequency trading, in which sophisticated computer programs simply traded with each other, cutting our the middleman flesh entirely, account for around two-thirds of all US security trading. And that was 7 years ago!

The floor of the New York Stock Exchange, the go-to visual tableux for financial TV news, is a kind of theatre, oddly reassuring in its over-the-top drama. Newspapers speak about finance in the language of personality. We are told that the markets are ‘nervous’ or ‘confident’. The crisp mundanity of Margin Call’s interiors are almost entirely absent of personality, which feels much closer to the reality of places like this. A smart young guy gets his degree, makes a cool quarter-mill a year and tries to spend his boredom away, rationalizing the morality problem by telling himself that in the end it’s just moving numbers around. He’s just another cog; so why shouldn’t he make bank in the process?

Eventually, the day of carnage comes to a close, brief telephone audio clips used to communicate the downturn. The essentially decent head trader Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who was the chief lobbyist against the fire sale strategy, declares to the Chairman of the Board that ‘he’s out’. Tuld says that, on the contrary, they need him to stay on for another two years to help steady the ship, and gives him the spiel about how there will always be money-men like them to help make the wheel go round. Without kicking up a fuss, Sam agrees, ‘not because of your little speech, but because I need the money’. Bit by bit, the system compromises its servants. Vacuum-packed, talky, artificial and structurally neat, Margin Call is a chilly modern fable about what passes for life in the kingdom of numbers.

Review by Conor Smyth @belfastfilmblog
Review by Conor Smyth

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