In 2011, An Overlooked Wall Street Drama Doubled as a Chilling Horror
One ruthless CEO can be scarier than a dozen masked killers.
2011 brought us new installments of Scream, Final Destination, and Paranormal Activity, remakes of ‘80s classics Fright Night and The Thing, and Adam Wingard’s calling card, You’re Next. But for a significant percentage of cinemagoers, the film most likely to induce sweaty palms, racing hearts, and an overwhelming sense of dread was a wordy Wall Street drama whose only kill was a euthanized dog.
J.C. Chandor’s remarkably self-assured directorial debut, Margin Call, takes place over a specific 24-hour period in 2008 in which the terror is provided not by a crazed killer, but the imminent collapse of the global stock market. Within the first 10 minutes, more than 40 percent of its unnamed bank’s workforce has been picked off in a manner more ruthless than Jason Voorhees.
While Margin Call wasn’t written or billed as a horror in any way, it consistently plays out like one. Ice-cold HR execs stalk the corridors of a New York skyscraper hunting for now-redundant employees they know only by name. Those who remain cower their heads in the hope they won’t be next. And when head of risk management Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) tells underling Peter (co-producer Zachary Quinto) to “be careful” while Eric’s being frog-marched out of the building, it’s unclear whether that’s helpful advice or a threat.
The flash drive Eric hands over soon provides an answer. While investigating its contents, Peter discovers something even more terrifying than the earlier corporate massacre. With mortgage-backed securities now exceeding historical volatility levels, the company’s assets have been dramatically over-leveraged, and the subsequent debts are large enough to send the long-established firm into bankruptcy. After summoning his senior colleagues back into the office, Peter and his superiors work through the night to discuss, plan, and moralize over what happens next.
Chandor drew upon his own experiences with investment banking – his father spent 35 years with Merrill Lynch – for the Oscar-nominated script, which perhaps explains why it feels both so authentic and often impenetrable to the uninitiated. There’s a reason Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine once hailed it as the best finance movie ever.
While The Big Short broke down the ins and outs of the ’08 financial crisis into digestible, visually-striking chunks, Margin Call appears to relish throwing viewers into the deep end. There’s certainly nothing here akin to Margot Robbie dissecting the concept of subprime loans in a bubble-filled bathtub. Yet its jargon-filled dialog only adds to the sense that you’re privy to something typically off-limits.
The tenseness of the situation is further exacerbated by Nathan Larson’s ominous score, cinematographer Frank DeMarco’s inspired use of shadows, and the claustrophobic setting; 80 percent of the movie was shot amid the same stainless steel and plate glass interiors of One Penn Plaza’s 42nd Floor. As increasingly important layers of management are brought in to discuss the crisis, the bland corporate setting highlights the fact that each addition is more ignorant and callous than the last.
Considering the never-ending allegations and creepy holiday video messages that have followed, you may now find the most unsettling aspect of Margin Call to be the presence of Kevin Spacey. If you can separate life from art, however, the disgraced actor’s floor head Sam Rogers is one of the film’s more sympathetic characters. Alongside Penn Badgley’s junior risk analyst Seth Bregman, he’s the only employee who caves into his emotions, albeit over his terminally ill pooch rather than the prospect of plunging the world’s economy into chaos. And unlike many of those higher up the financial chain, it’s clear he cares about those below him.
Instead, the film’s big baddie is Jeremy Irons’ CEO, a quasi-vampiric figure blatantly modeled on Lehman Brothers’ chairman Richard S. Fuld, Jr. The man behind everyone from Die Hard with a Vengeance’s Simon Gruber to The Lion King’s Scar can play the distinctly British arch-villain in his sleep, of course, so it’s little surprise his John Tuld oozes quiet menace from the moment he swoops into the last-ditch negotiations via helicopter. This is a man with the mantra, “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat.”
It’s Tuld who demands chief of risk management Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore, playing against type) take the fall for the company’s precarious position, and who implores his staff to knowingly dump worthless assets on their most loyal customers. The subsequent fire sale in which credit trading head Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) reels in an oblivious client is as chilling as any horror scene that sends its victims to their doom.
Much of the language used could just as easily have been lifted from a slasher, too. “Most of us aren’t going to make it out of this one,” Sam admits as news of another round of firings emerges. “You still alive?”/“For now”/“Congratulations”/“It was a bloodbath,” goes a conversation between Eric and Will just minutes after the former has been given his marching orders.
Everyone in Margin Call does live to see another day, of course. But by kickstarting a chain of events that will lead to foreclosures, mass unemployment, and a higher suicide rate, the firm racks up a body count that surpasses even the bloodthirstiest horror franchise.
Margin Call is streaming on Netflix through February 28.