Margin Call seems like the perfect post-Wolf of Wall Street palate cleanser. Scorsese’s film wielded kinetic entertainment as provocation, presenting the unlimited excess of the American dream before turning the camera on the audience and insisting on their culpability.
Margin Call isn’t on the same level, trading absurd hedonism for dry didacticism on the verge of the GFC. We get the same messages: our capitalist complicity in the inherent unfair market economy, defined by falseness – profits built on nothing. But unlike Scorsese, Chandor ensures we don’t miss the message, giving his stacked cast big speeches that underline these themes, leaving the film’s approach unambiguous.
Frankly, this all could have been pretty insufferable, but the screed is elevated by two choices that take the film from petty screed to powerful cinema. The first is to construct the film as a tense thriller, taking place over roughly 24 hours and maintaining audience interest throughout despite dialogue that focuses almost exclusively on numbers.
The second is the way Chandor weaves symbols into his film without overwhelming it: the way shadowy figures continually obstruct our view; a dully lit American flag flanked by glowing computers; or a sick dog, euthanised to alleviate its misery.