For a movie that studies the hazy gray area between right, wrong, and necessity, Margin Call spends a lot of time in darkness. First-time director J.C. Chandor’s exploration of thirty-six hours in the life of an unnamed Wall Street bank as it teeters on the verge of financial meltdown plays out the majority of its narrative in one tense, pivotal night, but even the daylight does little to chase away the shadows. They fall on everyone, sucking the light from the monochromatic color palette of crisp whites and expensive Armani blacks - and this is surely deliberate. If nobody is truly guilty in Chandor’s financial world, nobody is innocent either.
The movie opens as the sands have already begun to shift: junior risk analysts Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and Seth Bregman (Penn Badgely) watch in dismay as a team of HR specialists arrive to begin a series of layoffs. One of the casualties is their boss, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who has been working on something important. The firm won’t let him finish what he’s started, but he passes a memory stick to Sullivan as he’s escorted from the building, with an ominous injunction to “Be careful.” Sullivan, an ex-rocket scientist who’s been lured away from MIT by the bank’s “considerably more attractive” remuneration package, stays late to fill in the missing pieces of Dale’s work and discovers that one of the bank’s key trading assets is on the verge of a collapse so massive that financial annihilation is no longer a question of if, but of when. As word spreads upwards, the bank’s senior partners arrive one by one, including CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who determines that survival requires the firm to rid itself immediately of the toxic debt - knowing that this will set in motion a chain of events that will lead to economic disaster.
Hollywood has only infrequently visited the world of high-stakes finance, and the most obvious cinematic antecedent is for the movie is perhaps Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987). Obvious - but not necessarily useful, for Margin Call is a very different beast. Both narratives are explorations of corporate greed, but while Wall Street was a morality play about the corrupting influence of wealth and power, it was, at its heart, the story of one man (Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox) who allowed his honor-code to be subsumed by the siren-call of easy money and who is able, ultimately, to find redemption in honesty and justice. Margin Call, by contrast, is an ensemble piece without either a clear hero or a Gordon Gekko-like villain. Tuld comes closest to the latter, when he casually orders financial Armageddon, but the narrative is too nuanced to allow for such easy scapegoating. Rather, it’s played as the culmination of a systemic failure that reaches much deeper than the responsibility of any one person - or even one institution. Indeed, Tuld, for all his ruthless efficiency, is less amoral than positioned, essentially, outside of morality: the devastating consequences of his actions are absorbed with neither malice nor avarice, simply the acceptance that he functions as a necessary evil in a never-ending cycle of boom and bust as he calmly and ambivalently does what needs to be done to survive.
Nor is it clear who we ought to like. Bregman is brash and arrogant, obsessed with the earning potential of everyone around him, and largely indifferent to Dale’s departure, but he’s later found crying in a toilet stall as he contemplates the imminent ruin of his career. Sullivan is empathetic where Bregman is self-serving and honest where Bregman is inclined to lie. But he’s the only junior member of the floor to explicitly survive the cull that follows his discovery, and the final shot of him is his induction to the senior management’s dining room - in a neat inversion of Bud Fox’s redemptive arc, Sullivan’s brush with corporate corruption has landed him a promotion and further inculcation into the world of moral ambiguity. Rogers is introduced to the narrative brushing away a surreptitious tear as he processes the news that his dog is dying of cancer - but the floor is in the middle of a professional bloodbath; careers are ending, livelihoods are being crushed, and it’s hard to know how to read the fact that Rogers has no emotional space for the men and women under his management. Later, he will rail against Tuld’s decision and try to quit, only to acquiesce on the grounds that, “I need the money.”
An early scene underscores the contradictions embodied in his character, using a trope that the movie will revisit repeatedly: as Rogers drives home from the vets in a strikingly beautiful dialog-free sequence, he moves from shadow that completely obscures him, into the light, back into shadow. This use of light and shade as a metaphor for disingenuousness is scarcely novel, but Margin Call employs it with dexterity: black-clad characters melt into the darkness of half-lit offices or partially lit profile, only to re-emerge and disappear again, and even the daytime scenes are often shot in a series of claustrophobic close-ups that limit the encroach of sunlight. Moreover, the sequence above is intercut with the sequence in which Sullivan works his way through Dale’s unfinished analysis, and, indeed, the Rogers sequence acts as a bridge between an office lit for daytime trading, and an office plunged into nighttime gloom. It’s a neat summation of the firm’s descent into darkness, and of the difference between Margin Call and the bombast and hyperbole of Wall Street. Quietly, softly, with stillness and reserve, Margin Call tells the story of how the financial walls came crashing down - and the lack of noise and thunder is both the most powerful and the most unnerving thing about it.