You could describe Margin Call as a thriller (it’s wired with suspense), yet the tension all comes from words. Set in the fall of 2008 at a fictionalized version of Lehman Brothers, the film is steeped in the finance jargon of our time; one of its running jokes is that even the people who speak this language will stop to remark, ”Say it in plain English!” Yet as written and directed by J.C. Chandor (it’s his debut feature), Margin Call isn’t medicine. It has the hookiness of good David Mamet, the into-the-night electricity of something like 12 Angry Men. Call it 12 Sleazy Men (and one woman — hello, Demi Moore).
As a last-ditch act of loyalty, a downsized risk-management executive (Stanley Tucci) hands the program he was working on to one of his analysts, a young sharpie played by Zachary Quinto. Quinto, with his thick features, upswept hair, and eyebrows that are still more than a little Spockian, makes pensive concentration look like something out of an action movie. What he learns is that the company’s leverage has veered out of orbit: The bundling of mortgages with no value has caught up with it. In a word, the party is over. He delivers the bad news, and the company’s leaders then spend one long night trying to figure out what to do. The plan that emerges is dastardly: The only way to save their financial skins — never mind anyone else’s — is to dump their now-worthless holdings onto an unknowing market, as each of them pockets millions and walks away.
The gripping intrigue of Margin Call is the way it puts you right up close to the decision-making, the mix of greed, fear, and cunning. Chandor gets what Oliver Stone was going for in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps with a lot less fuss. And what a director of actors! Margin Call has pace problems in its second half; it peaks a little too early. But it captures how our financial institutions became secret havens to a selfishness so undiluted it was sociopathic. You watch this drama of big money with a tingle of toxic fascination. A-