There's a pervasive feeling of melancholy at the heart of the 2011 financial drama, Margin Call (directed by J.C. Chandor), in which every character moves through the film as if it were a party that had ended and the last stragglers are loath to head home. You can almost hear someone say "turn out the lights before you leave." Indeed, most of the movie is set after hours, where desperate characters seem even more desperate. This is the kind of financial drama that Edward Hopper might have made. It feels kind of like The Nighthawks:
The story here presents twenty-four hours in the life of an investment banking firm that is leveraged to the gills with mortgage backed securities. The time, I presume, is sometime in the second half of 2008. The firm itself is never named in the movie, but it seems like it's modeled on Lehman Brothers. As the film commences, bloodletting is happening on the trading floor, as the higher-ups are cutting back on their work force. One of the casualties is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk manager who is in the middle of creating a troubling financial projection based on current market conditions. He doesn't have the chance to finish his model, so he hands it off to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), one of the bright young up and comers who survives the bloodbath. "Be careful," Eric tells Peter, with good reason. His model is looking at economic Armageddon for the firm and for the market at large. Peter takes this to his boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who kicks it to his boss, Sam Rodgers (Kevin Spacey), who is having the worst day of anyone there. His dog is dying and he's stuck at work. Up the chain of command it goes until it lands with the CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). In a rash of late-night meetings, a plan is hatched to dump their position with the toxic assets and damn the poor shlubs who get caught holding the bag. They will intentionally be unloading worthless paper in order to secure their own survival. And to hell with what it does the the rest of the world.
This is obviously a movie about moral choices among sharks. It goes out of its way to humanize its characters, but in the end, there's not enough moral fiber here to stem the ruthless expedience of business. The only character who emerges with his hands clean is Eric Dale, who the firm retrieves after shit-canning him, and pays him an obscene amount of money to sit by while they perform their hatchet job. The rest? They're destroying capitalism in the name of capitalism. It's a thing to watch. At one point, Tuld says to Rodgers that he's made a career of putting people out of business, so why should this be any different. Of course, the last three years of history have shown the consequences, and why it is different. This is a nuanced morality play, in which some characters know what they're doing is evil and go along anyway, some characters don't care, and some characters just don't know it at all. To them, it all seems perfectly reasonable in context.
This is a sociological movie, too, one that details a particular set of people at a particular time and place. As a portrait of late capitalism, it's particularly damning. Eric's lament about the bridge he once built mourns for a useful life. Peter relates his background as a rocket scientist to his superiors. His job at the firm pays better. In these two characters, the movie seems to be saying that the manipulation of wealth for its own sake has no intrinsic value compared to actual work. Maybe it's right. Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), one of the people responsible for conveying the risk of what they all were doing has hit a glass ceiling and has no chance against Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), her aggressive opposite number. The scene early in the film in which some of our characters relax after work at a strip club doubles down on this, and the movie elides an appalling casual sexism. In any event, this is basically a shark tank. The revelation of the value of mortgage backed securities is blood in the water. The financial crisis is a feeding frenzy.
The movie codes its characters well, too. Peter is a technocrat. He's always surrounded by computers. Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), Peter's friend and fellow technocrat, doesn't have the initiative to succeed. He's always got a bottle in his hand. Tuld, one of the masters of the universe to whom the concerns of the little people are as the comings and goings of ants, breakfasts overlooking the city from what might just as well be Mount Olympus. Each character has his or her individual fatal flaw--gender, conscience, motivation or lack thereof--and it brings them all down in the course of a night. All except Tuld. The gods are above it all.
I don't know what it is about movies about business or work, but they're fascinating. Movies that point their cameras at the minutiae of how the world works hold my attention like no others. That's true of this movie, even though I know for a fact that it's being deliberately vague about the nuts and bolts of high finance. This plays a bit like a thriller even though it's not one. The filmmakers have placed its story in a glasscine modern space and lit it with harsh fluorescent lights and poured booze all over everything. I was reminded a bit of that scene in Tokyo Sonata where all the unemployed salarimen dutifully walk the streets in a parade, as if they're dead men. As I say, this has a late-night feeling to it.
I'd like to think that this film is an epitaph for the excesses of Wall Street, but the world hasn't learned anything from the 2008 financial debacle. High finance is still largely unregulated and the world for those who aren't the masters of the universe continues to spiral downward. When this movie concludes, with Sam Rodgers burying his dog in his ex-wife's yard, there's a sense that he's burying a civilization along with it. When the movie fades to black and the credits roll, the sound of the shovel continues, no longer specific to the task on screen.