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Margin Call: No heroes, just plenty of villains

Kevin Spacey in a scene from "Margin Call"

Walter Thomson

4 out of 4 stars


If Eric Dale worked on the Titanic, he would've been stationed on the crow's nest – first to spot the iceberg. He's a risk manager at an unnamed Wall Street securities firm in 2008, sitting at his desk, frowning at a historical volatility index.

Numbers show the firm is overleveraged, awash in toxic mortgage-backed securities.

Brrr. The iceberg cometh.

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Soon Eric (Stanley Tucci) is fired along with half his floor. Exiting, he flips a USB data key with his grim discovery to an underling. Bad news travels fast. Before long, floor boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) is hearing all about the historical volatility index.

The what? One of Margin Call's good jokes is that no one in power on Wall Street is comfortable with math. Still, they can read the writing on the wall. Before too long, Sam realizes his company is dead. He has to get Dracula on the phone.

So begins the best movie ever made about Wall Street. Margin Call is the breakthrough work of J.C. Chandor, a 37-year-old commercial director whose father worked for and brought home friends from Merrill Lynch for 40 years. Presumably, Chandor learned about all about Dracula from his dad.

The dark prince in Margin Call is CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), a Master of the Universe familiar with corporate bloodlettings going back 1,000 years. As everyone familiar with recent Wall Street history knows, Tuld rhymes with Fuld, as in Richard Fuld, the real-life former head of Lehman Brothers who made half a billion dollars, thanks in part to toxic mortgages, between 1993 and 2007. There wasn't any Lehman Brothers after 2008.

The fictional firm in Margin Call may be dead, but perhaps not its executives' fortunes. At dawn, Tuld's helicopter lands on the roof. He wants to know all about this historical volatility index. "Speak to me as you would a small child, or a golden retriever," he implores a young trader, Peter (Zachary Quinto).

Margin Call captures the gladiator grind of Wall Street, where players are athletes with salaries instead of numerals on their back. At one point, Peter and a colleague, Seth (Penn Badgley) visit a strip club. Seth follows naked legs as they disappear up out of the frame.

"How much you think she makes a night?" he wonders aloud.

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Filmmaker Chandor has obviously been influenced by Coppola. Like the Godfather films, Margin Call is wrapped in shadows to excite suspicion and paranoia. And the writer-director sometimes adopts a David Mamet stutter, using empty spaces and repetition to suggest moral evasiveness and fear, like when Peter says goodbye to his mentor Eric:

"You were the one around here…."

"I know…."

Elsewhere, a numbed Sam drives into tomorrow with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. The firm's best salesmen (Paul Bettany) blows Cockney smoke up clients' sleeves ("How's the trouble and strife?") before throwing the same poison pitch: "Today, my loss is your gain."

Chandor's shrewdest bit of business is figuring out how to make an A-list movie with a $3.5-million budget. Solution: buy low, sell high. Hire last decade's A-list – Spacey, Irons and Demi Moore – and give them their best parts in years.

Spacey is mesmerizing as Sam, a weary, aging lion losing his appetite for antelope. And Irons plays the villain with magisterial ease. The best sequence here is Tuld's tender letting go of an old, once valued colleague, Demi Moore – a scene Irons plays like a gentlemen letting a lady off at the curb, moving quickly to open her door after a rewarding evening.

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Special to The Globe and Mail

Margin Call

  • Written and directed by J.C. Chandor
  • Starring Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto and Simon Baker
  • Classification: 14A

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