Several movies in the past year or so have tried to get their arms around the unwieldy topic of the 2008 economic collapse. It's a subject that's incredibly complicated and, even more challenging for filmmakers, not one that's inherently cinematic.
The documentary "Inside Job" did an excellent job of spelling out what happened in a clear, concise way without ever condescending to its audience, and it earned an Academy Award in the process. Several feature films, including the hit-and-miss "The Company Men" and the operatic "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," have tried to put a human face on the subject with mixed results.
Now we have "Margin Call," which recreates the earliest moments of the crisis with the tight time frame and claustrophobic setting of a play - a David Mamet play, to be specific. First-time writer-director J.C. Chandor depicts this devastating moment of volatility with a patter that's reminiscent of Mamet: profane and masculine, with rhythmic repetition of certain key phrases that we, unfortunately, can't repeat here ourselves. It's a fitting approach given the swagger of the characters in this cruel and competitive world, as well as the pressure they feel once they realize how much trouble they, and the rest of the world, are in.
Chandor's father worked for Merrill Lynch for nearly 40 years, so this is a realm - and a personality type - he knows well. He also knows well enough to stand back and let the excellent cast of actors he's amassed do what they do best. He depicts these dramatic developments without any melodrama, but rather offers a steady drumbeat as one person after another comes to the chilling realization that we're all screwed.
"Margin Call" takes place over a 24-hour period, beginning with some slash-and-burn layoffs at a major financial firm. Among the casualties is risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who passes along to one of his underlings, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, who's also a producer), some figures he was studying on his way out the door. His warning: "Be careful."
Peter - who literally is a rocket scientist with a doctorate from MIT - digs a little deeper later that night while the firm's bad boys are out partying. His realization that Eric was onto something, that the firm is in way over its head and is about to find out its assets are essentially worthless, spreads across his face with a quiet horror. It's a reaction that we'll see again and again as this discovery gets kicked up the chain of command.
Next up is Peter's new boss, the charismatic Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), and then his boss, the 34-year veteran Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). Then come the people who run the risk management department (Demi Moore and Aasif Mandvi) - whose warnings of trouble a month earlier went unheeded - and then the firm's young, soulless head honcho (Simon Baker), until finally the creepily calm CEO (Jeremy Irons) drops down from the sky in his helicopter in the middle of the night.
"Margin Call" unfolds in a series of quietly intense and increasingly distressing meetings between the various figures- Quinto and Spacey, Spacey and Irons, Irons and Moore, Moore and Tucci, and so on. There are no histrionics, just the intermittent hum of Nathan Larson's score to keep us on edge, and the lights of the Manhattan skyline glittering throughout this all-nighter to remind us of the wealth and power that drove these people in the first place.
Perhaps it's all a bit too actorly, a bit too stagey in its structure. But strong performances abound, which is evident given Chandor's intimate approach, and that makes "Margin Call" consistently compelling. Bettany and Baker tear it up in big, showy roles, and Tucci is withering in just a glance as the film's disillusioned voice of reason. But Spacey does some of the best work we've seen from him in a while as a once-confident man who's now questioning everything upon which he built his cushy life. A subplot involving his beloved dog may seem like a maudlin metaphor for his fate - and the nation's - but it sure is apt.
The Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions release is rated R for language. Running time: 107 minutes.