Monday, 11 March 2013

How in hell did 2011’s stunning “Margin Call” fail to win a slew of Oscars and BAFTAs?

It’s 2008. An investment firm’s analysts have just realised that they’re so heavily leveraged that they could go bust at any moment. In the early hours of the morning the CEO helicopters in to meet his management team and decide on a course of action. Up till this point, the film has been rivetting, but then Jeremy irons (the Big Boss) proceeds to give one of the best screen performances of the last ten years - and we have a little classic on our hands: 

It's hard to think of a film in recent years where so many of the central performances have been this good: Stanley Tucci as the analyst who's sacked just as he's about the reveal the catastrophe threatening the firm; Zachary Quinto as the young analyst who "does the math" and alerts his bosses; Simon Baker as the creepily affectless senior manager who summons the CEO - and then advises him to sell the "products" threatening to destroy the company; Jeremy Irons as the ruthless SOB who makes the decision; and Kevin Spacey as the trading boss who discovers he has a conscience. 

How is it possible that none of them were honoured for their work in this great film? 

J.C. Chandor, the first-time writer-director, who'd spent fifteen years doing commercials and documentaries before this, his first feature, fared better. He was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2012, and won a clutch of other well-deserved awards for both Best Screenplay and Best First Feature.

As a right-wing free-marketeer, I should be wary of movies kicking bankers (even though I have no love whatsoever for their panicking, plundering breed). But this is no knee-jerk lefty diatribe: there's something very chewy and David Mamet-like about the script. Here, in the film's central scene, Jeremy Irons (who, realising he can't hack an American accent, doesn't even bother trying) explains how the world of international finance works to his subordinate, Kevin Spacey, who wants out:

"I need the money" is the key line. Spacey's character is, of course, referring to an emotional need. Why would anyone go on doing anything as horrible as this for a living after the first few years, when the adrenalin has stopped working? I've always assumed that, without the shedloads of dosh to validate their existence, these people would simply burst into tears and turn their face to the wall. I'm no enemy of the profit motive, but it does strike me that, when it comes to the whackier end of the finance industry, it's become a reductio ad absurdum. (Which would be fine, if only the rest of us didn't have to end up dealing with the absurdity.)

An enormous hat-tip to my brother who recommended the film  - and Jeremy Irons' performance in particular - to me. Thank you!


  1. As you enjoyed "Margin Call" you should try "Boiler Room" [2000] with Vin Diesel and Ben Affleck. More financial shenanigans.

    1. Vin Diesel??? Are you sure? Well, if you say so!

      Okay, I just looked at a scene on YouTube - and he actually appears to be doing some acting. Who knew? (Apart from you, of course.)

  2. I've just finished watching it. A big thank you to SDG. I can't understand how it slipped by. Thank goodness there are still film makers in the US who can build drama and tension without guns, violence and special effects. The Irons performance is a revelation.

    But I can't work out whether he and Paul Bettany can't do American accents or whether they are very subtly imitating the sort of American that English traders working for US banks tend to adopt. I ran into a load of them while looking for a New York bar which was showing the rugby world cup a few years ago. They all spoke like that as they compared notes on salaries, cars and bonking opportunities. It was not an experience to make you proud to be an Englishman.

    Is the Irons character's continuous wiping of his nose simply a bit of Lee Strasberg style method acting, a subtle hint at a rich banker's coke habit..or did Jeremy just have a cold that day? I suppose we'll never know.