Set on a gossamer housing bubble about to collapse, “Margin Call” details a fraught 36 hours in the life of an investment bank. After watching, you may join a throng pursuing stockbrokers.
The movie begins with a housecleaning. Moving down rows of analysts and traders staring at computer screens, blandly chipper young flunkies literally tap their victims on the shoulder and take them away. But not far.
A risk analysis supervisor, Eric Dale, finds himself on stage, shunted into a glass-walled office visible to the entire room. Like brisk zombies, dead-eyed Human Resources types tell him "the majority of this floor is being let go today" and lay out his non-negotiable severance package.
In yet another strong performance by Stanley Tucci, Eric is an earnest middle manager still trying to do his job as he's being shown the door. He pleads to complete a report with important implications for the firm. But his time is up; witness the beefy security man assigned to escort him out.
Eric's boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) expresses regret, but doesn't feel bad enough to pay attention. He believes his work is done when he signals Eric that the decision was made by an even higher up, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore).
Two of Dale's underlings come to see him off, although 23-year-old Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) mainly wants to fish for information on how this affects him. Peter Sullivan, an excellent Zachary Quinto, is more sincere. In response, Eric passes him a flash drive and the warning, "Be careful."
Meanwhile, loyal executive Sam Rogers is exhorting the remaining staff on the trading floor, getting them to applaud themselves for being survivors. With his humane, nuanced performance of this company man, Kevin Spacey reminds us of why he is one of our best actors.
"Margin Call" takes off when young Sullivan stays late to look at Dale's research into the firm's holdings, then plug in some additional data. What he sees causes him to reach out to Emerson and Bregman at the Manhattan club where they are partying hearty.
As the evening wears on, the chain reaction goes up the line to Rogers, who needs an explanation, "What am I looking at?" In turn, he calls the risk management executives, Moore's Robertson and Simon Baker as the very well-coiffed Jared Cohen.
Robertson and Cohen are the two people in charge of evaluating the firm's exposure on risky mortgage-backed securities. The virus at the heart of America's financial ailments, these are often investment vehicles for bad mortgage loans, repackaged and certified by ratings agencies as being good.
Dale and Sullivan have belatedly determined that the firm is far too heavily committed to these high-risk buys. With Dale already kicked to the curb and unavailable, it is left to Sullivan to explain to one set of bosses after another that the bank is so highly leveraged that market ripples already are tipping it into insolvency.
The panic grows in Demi Moore's eyes as she realizes who is on the hot seat as the firm's investment formula fails. In contrast, Simon Baker's bland, blank expression conveys a culprit who already has worked out his contingency plan. While neither of their characters has anything of substance to contribute, it is Baker's Cohen who has already alerted the bank's chairman.