Margin Call (2011)

(In theaters, December 2011) Obviously inspired by the financial crisis of September 2008, Margin Call is a rare thriller in which conversations, analysis and boardroom meetings take the lead over car chases, explosions and gunfights.  It starts with a mass layoff at an unnamed Wall Street trading firm and a dire warning from one fired analyst to his still-employed protégé: “Be careful.”  Before long, our intrepid boy wonder has discovered that the firm is about to go bankrupt, and the news spread upward in a series of meeting with ever-more-important people.  Strategies are discussed, blame is tentatively assigned, speeches are made, decisions are taken and, eventually, a terrible no-return strategy is adopted.  The film isn’t as good as it could be: Margin Call’s low-budget and first-time director shows in the static cinematography, tepid pacing, overlong shots and lack of a fully satisfying conclusion.  But the achievement here is considerable, starting from the terrific cast assembled here: Kevin Spacey gives a far more humane take on his usual screen personae; Paul Bettany is terrific as a high-flying trader who realizes the danger of his current situation; Jeremy Irons makes an impression as a point-one-percenter with gravitas; Stanley Tucci is wonderful as usual as an engineer turned financial analyst; and so is Zachary Quinto (looking a lot like a prettier Ewan McGregor in Rogue Trader) as the pivotal character who flags the crisis.  The dialogue is sharp, the dramatic dilemmas are unusual, the characters are well-developed and the themes are current at a time where an increasing number of Americans are openly questioning the social usefulness of the business described here.  While the dialogue-heavy piece won’t appeal to everyone, Margin Call  is a clever and efficient film that fully exploits the limits of its budget to deliver a striking result.

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