In many ways, great dialogue has become a lost art. There are still a few reliable practitioners of writing the spoken word—the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino are probably the modern standard-bearers, and Woody Allen can still pepper his scripts with funny asides that sound just like Woody Allen—but these days, great, memorable lines serve more as punctuation for scenes that don't have very much to say.
Michael Clayton is a fairly recent example of a film built almost entirely out of difficult conversations. But audiences have become so attuned to throwaway writing that anything more in-depth than "let's get the hell outta here" requires too much; a common complaint about Michael Clayton was that it "felt slow."
Margin Call is a lot like Michael Clayton in the sense that the conversations—mostly about one very big elephant in a tiny room—are difficult, and they question ethics and consequences while offering no easy payoffs.
It's easy to see why the producers were so enamored with the script by first-time director J.C. Chandor. It's highly intelligent; it shows compromised people at their unmitigated worst and dead-level best; and it's a contemporary topic with an easy target.
It's Black Thursday at a New York investment bank (modeled not so loosely on Lehman Brothers) thinning its herd back in 2008; we're supposed to understand up front that there was a massive fiscal collapse shortly hereafter. Dazed by the parade of now-former co-workers, Peter (Zachary Quinto) is reassured by his boss, Will (Paul Bettany), that such events are common here. It's best to keep your head down and your eyes on the ball. To Peter's surprise, one of those let go is Eric (Stanley Tucci), something of a father figure to the young risk analyst. On his way out the door, Eric passes along a program he's been working on to Peter with the instruction, "be careful."
What Peter finds after crunching the numbers is that the party is over: Subprime mortgages are about to wreak havoc on the firm, and it can either take the damage and probably lose everything, or sell the junk in the company's portfolio for dirt-cheap, drastically unsettling the market while losing only dignity—and a lot more employees.
The alerts move up the chain of command: Peter calls Will; Will calls Sam (Kevin Spacey); Sam calls Jared (Simon Baker); and Jared calls the big boss (Jeremy Irons). The meetings at the firm last all night and into the early morning. How will the firm spin it? Who wins or loses? And who in the board room will be left standing?
This is the film that the second Wall Street movie should have been. It's smart, gutsy, uncluttered and effective. There's zero in the way of physical action, which might have been a good strategy for the rookie director. Of course, dialogue this sharp can almost act as a substitute for car chases; some of these scenes are simply riveting, and it's just guys in suits sitting around a conference table analyzing projected losses.
Margin Call was shot in an astonishing 17 days—astonishing, because there is no filler. It's all talk, meaning the actors had to bring their best to stay on that schedule, and they did. Spacey is great; Irons takes the air out of the room; Bettany is manic and moody; and Quinto—who also deserves massive credit for producing this film—is, well, Dr. Spock. He's dispassionate, contained and the smartest guy in the room; however, this problem requires chutzpah more than intelligence.
There are two monologues, one by Irons and one by Tucci, that absolutely cement this screenplay as one of the year's best. Irons, portraying the CEO who in effect christens the entire economic collapse, washes his hands of the whole affair by resurrecting two centuries of American economic turmoil. It's cyclical, in other words, and life will go on. Tucci puts the carelessness of the financial industry into perspective, recollecting the story of a commuter bridge, efficiency and serving a greater good. It's hard to believe it could be so enrapturing.
Margin Call is obviously not a great choice for a first-date movie. There are few laughs and no release valves, and it requires full attention. It moves briskly and with a real purpose, much in the way a normal day in the risk-management department of a major investment house might. It's a film with something on its mind, and while it definitely has its villains, it also has a couple of golden parachutes for characters who might have more to lose and less to gain—and who see the error in the company's ways. Is it justice for the real economic meltdown? No. But it does bring to mind who may have pushed the snowball down the hill, and who was powerless to stop it.
One final note: Margin Call was filmed primarily on the 42nd floor of One Penn Plaza in New York City. The space had recently been vacated by a large investment firm.