Coincidentally, I’d watched an award screener of Contagion just before running out to catch Margin Call and was unsettled by the number of eerie parallels between the two pictures. No fooling; I kept expecting Jude Law or Matt Damon to walk around the corner into the offices of the film’s fictional investment Firm.
The feature debut of 37-year-old writer-director J.C. Chandor (whose father worked at Merrill Lynch for 40 years), the movie traces the current economic crisis back to the moment of its 2008 Wall Street outbreak. Imagine Inside Job adapted for the screen by David Mamet and you’ve got the general idea.
As the picture opens, a battalion of drones straight out of Up in the Air or The Company Men floods the glistening corporate digs of a powerful 107-year-old investment bank and proceeds to downsize the hell out of the place. That sort of thing had already become such a common cost-cutting practice that nobody appears terribly surprised. Some are saddened, others relieved but everyone behaves as though the bloodbath is business as usual.
As Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) points out after being instructed to pack up his things, however, gutting the risk assessment division of a financial institution probably isn’t the brightest move management could make. As he’s escorted to the elevator by security, he slips a flashdrive to a young analyst named Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and warns him to “be careful.”
Later that evening Sullivan decides to see what his former boss had been working on and pops the thing into his computer. What he discovers prompts him to summon his new boss (Paul Bettany) who in turn summons his superior (Kevin Spacey) who does the same until, ultimately, it’s am and the company’s brain trust is assembled before Jeremy Irons in the role of CEO and Prince of Darkness John Tuld (an echo of Richard Fuld, who made half a billion dollars leading Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy).
“Speak to me as you would a small child,” he invites Sullivan, “or a golden retriever.” (One of the film’s running jokes is that the higher up the chain of command these people are, the less they seem to understand the business that’s making them millions). And with that, Quinto’s character lays out a computer model projecting that the bank’s aggressive position in the subprime mortgage market has already doomed it-most of its assets have lost so much of their value the losses will soon exceed the company’s worth.
This is when Chandor serves the meat of the movie. Hard decisions must be made. A head or two must roll. His script doesn’t stop to flesh out its characters to any great degree. The essential question batted around until dawn is should the firm take its medicine or attempt to save itself by unloading its toxic holdings to clients, in effect contaminating the market with financial time bombs.
My sense is the filmmaker could have moved the last two acts along at a brisker pace as everyone knows what happened next. Suspense is not the attraction here but rather the behind-the-scenes glimpse at the dynamics within a global powerhouse like this one along with insight into the ethical wrestling match which ensues in such a situation.
Some of the responses we observe are more convincing than others. Despite the many glowing reviews for it, I found Spacey’s performance as the company’s Official Conflicted Bigwig contrived. Demi Moore adds little to her filmography as a top executive whose inscrutability may simply be the result of too much Botox. Tucci, as always, is a joy to behold. Unfortunately, he’s afforded minimal screen time.
Which leaves Irons in yet another scene-chewing role as a privileged bloodsucker. A titan of finance who descends by helicopter in the dead of night to access the damage and devise the most expedient means of passing it along to others, his character is the movie’s most credible creation. A member of the 1% who can’t be bothered by something as mundane as an apocalypse for the average joe, he may be worth a billion or two less when he awakes the following day but is nonetheless fabulously unruffled. As though he knows the bailout check is already in the mail.