Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Margin Call

J.C Chandor’s portrait of a modern Wall Street bank is a slow-burn acting master class.

With a narrative loosely modelled on the extraordinary events of September 2008, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers gored a huge hole in the global economy, it paints a bleak but compelling portrait of financial meltdown.

After a risk analyst (Stanley Tucci) at a large Wall Street bank is fired, his underling (Zachary Quinto) soon realises the entire company could go under within 36 hours.

We then see various managers struggle with the crisis: a salesman (Paul Bettany), the head of sales (Kevin Spacey), the head of securities (Simon Baker), the head of risk (Demi Moore) and finally the CEO (Jeremy Irons).

What is so impressive about the film is that it takes us right inside the den of greed and manages to convey the enormity of the crisis through acting and atmosphere.

It doesn’t ask us to sympathise with the various employees, but instead depicts a haunting, dread-filled portrait of a society crumbling from the top down.

In the quiet specifics of a bank, amidst humming computer screens and late night boardrooms, Chandor finds a wider cultural malaise.

That this is his debut film is remarkable – he not only shows a shrewd grasp of the Wall Street culture but shows a sure sense of atmosphere and tension.

Shot in just 17 days for around $3m and mostly set inside a single building, he has cannily used the limited time and resources to his advantage.

His screenplay thrives on disbelief and confusion – characters frequently express the desire to hear things in plain English – which mirrors society’s wider shock that Wall Street could be getting away with this for so long.

The wider point seems to be that successive governments and voters were only too happy because they too were part of the problem, happy to buy into what was essentially a giant Ponzi scheme.

What is brilliant about the narrative is that it continually takes us up the corporate ladder and depicts with startling eloquence how everyone is essentially powerless to stop what’s coming.

It was presumably this underlying intelligence that attracted actors like Tucci, Spacey and Irons, all of who give some of their best performances in years.

There are also small but perfectly formed turns from the likes of Quinto, Bettany, Baker and Moore who neatly round off one of the best ensemble casts of the year.

As any decent dramatist knows, silence can be as crucial as dialogue – in some cases the faces here depict more than words ever could – but where the film gets really fascinating is the exchanges towards the end as the higher ups debate the final course of action for their firms.

They may or may not be the kind of words that Richard Fuld used in the weeks after Lehman Brothers died but they give a plausible insight into the pathological nature of the state-subsidised capitalism of the past few years.

When Margin Call was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25th it coincided with an organised day of protest in Egypt, which formed a key part of the Arab Spring, and its US release in October neatly coincided with the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.

There is a certain irony that Arab nations have influenced American protest, given that part of the reason the US economy is in trouble is the trillion dollars squandered on invading that region of the world.

But we live in strange times where there is a growing sense of despair and anger amongst a generation of people expected to suffer because of the poisonous actions of the actions of the Wall Street-Government nexus.

Part of what makes it so effective is that it doesn’t offer simplistic solutions and infects the audience with a sense of looming dread at what is still to come.

By the end it is hard not to feel like you’ve just spent time with criminals who will keep re-offending unless brought to justice.

Three years on there is still no solution to the overall crisis as the Obama administration still employs people who helped caused the crisis, whilst the Republicans seem to have descended into a state of collective insanity.

What makes the film so chilling and effective is that there appears to be no solution in sight.

Aside from Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job the global financial crisis hasn’t really given us a good drama until now.

Part of the reason is the surface complexity of the related issues although the fundamental problem was simple: a lack of proper regulation led to Wall Street destroying the wider economy whilst avoiding suitable punishment or regulation.

The fact that banks like Goldman Sachs not only benefited from the demise of a major rival, but also got bailed out by the taxpayer was a perversion of capitalism that caused widespread anger across the political spectrum.

So seismic are the problems facing Western societies that it may take a new generation of political leaders to remedy the deep problems – and even then it could be too late.

The film industry has not been immune to these events, with the ‘independent’ market for films crashing in sync with the wider economy.

So it feels appropriate that the first serious drama to deal with the Wall Street meltdown is this reminder of what the US system can produce when it takes chances.

Margin Call is a daring film in many ways as it seeks to explore the mind-set of the very people who still inhabit the halls of finance and government.

This has been reflected in the funding (name actors attracted by a decent script), shooting (on a Red One digital camera) and distribution (a mixture of limited theatrical and VOD download in the US).

Here in the UK it is being released by Stealth Media (in the US it was distributed by Roadside Attractions after being acquired at Sundance) and is being given an encouragingly wide release.

The current harsh climate for independent movies may see distributors embrace innovative release strategies.

In the US Margin Call’s release raised a few eyebrows with its combination of VOD and theatrical, which goes against industry wisdom that one will cannibalise the other.

Cassian Elwes was the producer and agent heavily involved in the film and when I asked him on Twitter what the rough percentage of people who saw it at US cinemas versus those who downloaded it, he replied that it was probably one to one.

Indie films might need to embrace release strategies such as this if they are to survive.

Like the wider economy the future is still uncertain, but films like Margin Call can give us hope.

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic
> Find out more about the Late-2000s financial crisis at Wikipedia
> Listen to our interview with Charles Ferguson about Inside Job

Cinema Lists

The Best Films of 2011

Although it was a year with a record number of sequels, there was much to feast on if you really looked for something different.

The year will be remembered for momentous events which overshadowed anything Hollywood could come up with: the Arab Spring, the Japanese Earthquake, Hackgate, the death of Osama Bin Laden and the continuing meltdown of the global economy.

But cinema itself underwent some seismic changes: in April the thorny issue of the theatrical window raised its head, whilst James Cameron suggested films should be projected at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24.

But by far the biggest story was the news that Panavision, Arri and Aaton were to stop making film cameras: although the celluloid projection will effectively be over by 2013, it seems the death of 35mm capture is only a few years away.

So the medium of film, will soon no longer involve celluloid. That’s a pretty big deal.

As for the releases this year, it seemed a lot worse than it actually was.

Look beyond the unimaginative sequels and you might be surprised to find that there are interesting films across a variety of genres.

Instead of artifically squeezing the standout films into a top ten, below are the films that really impressed me in alphabetical order, followed by honourable mentions that narrowly missed the cut but are worth seeking out.


A Separation (Dir. Asghar Farhadi): This Iranian family drama explored emotional depths and layers that few Western films even began to reach this year.

Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn): Nicolas Winding Refn brought a European eye to this ultra-stylish LA noir with a killer soundtrack and performances.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Dir. Martin Scorsese): Scorsese’s in-depth examination of the late Beatle was a passionate and moving tribute to a kindred soul.

Hugo (Dir. Martin Scorsese): The high-priest of celluloid channelled his inner child to create a stunning digital tribute to one of the early pioneers of cinema.

Jane Eyre (Dir. Cary Fukunaga): An exquisite literary adaptation with genuine depth, feeling and two accomplished lead performers that fitted their roles like a glove.

Margin Call (Dir. J.C. Chandor): The best drama yet to come out the financial crisis is this slow-burn acting masterclass which manages to clarify the empty heart of Wall Street.

Melancholia (Dir. Lars von Trier): Despite the Cannes controversy, his stylish vision of an apocalyptic wedding was arguably his best film, filled with memorable images and music.

Moneyball (Dir. Bennett Miller): The philosophy that changed a sport was rendered into an impeccably crafted human drama by director Bennett Miller with the help of Brad Pitt.

Project Nim (Dir. James Marsh): A chimpanzee raised as a human was the extraordinary and haunting subject of this documentary from James Marsh.

Rango (Dir. Gore Verbinski): The best animated film of 2011 came from ILMs first foray into the medium as they cleverly riffed on classic westerns and Hollywood movies.

Senna (Dir. Asif Kapadia): A documentary about the F1 driver composed entirely from existing footage made for riveting viewing and a truly emotional ride.

Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen): The follow up to Hunger was a powerful depiction of sexual compulsion in New York, featuring powerhouse acting and pin-sharp cinematography.

Snowtown (Dir. Justin Kerzel): Gruelling but brilliant depiction of an Australian murder case, which exposed modern horror for the empty gorefest it has become.

Take Shelter (Dir. Jeff Nichols): Wonderfully atmospheric blend of family drama and Noah’s Ark which brilliantly played on very modern anxieties of looming apocalypse.

The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius): An ingenious love letter to the silent era of Hollywood is executed with an almost effortless brilliance.

The Descendants (Dir. Alexander Payne): Pitch-perfect comedy-drama which saw Alexander Payne return to give George Clooney his best ever role.

The Guard (Dir. John Michael McDonagh): Riotously funny Irish black comedy with Brendan Gleeson given the role of his career.

The Interrupters (Dir. Steve James): The documentary of the year was this powerful depiction of urban violence and those on the frontline trying to prevent it.

The Skin I Live In (Dir. Pedro Almodovar): The Spanish maestro returned with his best in years, as he skilfully channeled Hitchcock and Cronenberg.

The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick): Moving and mindblowing examination of childhood, death and the beginnings of life on earth.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir Tomas Alfredson): Wonderfully crafted John le Carre adaptation which resonates all too well in the current era of economic and social crisis.

Tyrannosaur (Dir. Paddy Considine): Searingly emotional drama with two dynamite lead performances and an unexpected Spielberg reference.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsey): Audio-visual masterclass from Ramsay with a now predictably great performance from Tilda Swinton.

Win Win (Dir. Thomas McCarthy): Quietly brilliant comedy-drama with Paul Giamatti seemingly born to act in this material.


A Dangerous Method (Dir. David Cronenberg)
Anonymous (Dir. Roland Emmerich)
Another Earth (Dir. Mike Cahill)
Attack the Block (Dir. Joe Cornish)
Bobby Fischer Against The World (Dir. Liz Garbus)
Confessions (Dir. Tetsuya Nakashima)
Contagion (Dir. Steven Soderbergh)
Four Days Inside Guantanamo (Dir. Luc Cote, Patricio Henriquez)
I Saw the Devil (Dir. Kim Ji-woon)
Into the Abyss (Dir. Werner Herzog)
Life in a Day (Dir. Kevin MacDonald)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Dir. Sean Durkin)
Midnight in Paris (Dir. Woody Allen)
Page One: Inside The New York Times (Dir. Andrew Rossi)
Super 8 (Dir. JJ Abrams)
The Adventures of Tintin (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
The Beaver (Dir. Jodie Foster)
The Deep Blue Sea (Dir. Terence Davies)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir. David Fincher)
The Ides of March (Dir. George Clooney)


Armadillo (Dir. Janus Metz)
Beginners (Dir. Mike Mills)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Dir. Werner Herzog)
Submarine (Dir. Richard Ayoade)
Cold Weather (Dir. Aaron Katz)
Tabloid (Dir. Errol Morris)

Find out more about the films of 2011 at Wikipedia
End of year lists at Metacritic
> The Best Film Music of 2011
The Best DVD and Blu-ray Releases of 2011