The most interesting thing to me about Margin Call is that it’s shot like a horror movie. Look at the visual palette and it’s all icy blues and whites. Sunlight is harsh and alien; what these people do they do in the dark, lit only by the artificial light of their monitors and overhead fluorescents.
And make no mistake, it is a horror movie. The story of a thinly fictionalized Lehman Brothers in the hours before, during and after the sell-off of worthless assets that catalyzed the economic crash of 2008. The traders, played by an all-star cast of mostly men, are not overtly monstrous. When Zachary Quinto’s hapless quant explains to the emergency meeting of the board that their financial model is screwed, there’s no yelling or shouting or Mametian verbal pyrotechnics, because there’s no need. These denizens of the trading pit are just creatures who’ve lost their humanity one transaction at a time, and who largely seem unaware of this fact.
Kevin Spacey’s senior trader is perhaps the most human of the bunch, and his concern is for the firm and for the people working under him, whose careers the firm is going to wreck because they’re going to be selling of trash. The people outside of the walls of the firm don’t exist; the only emotional connection Spacey has is to his dying dog. Even his son is someone other characters have to constantly remind him of. And he’s the most human. Everyone else - Demi Moore’s sacrificial victim, Stanley Tucci’s disgusted quant, Paul Bettany’s self-absorbed would-be maven - is too fully a part of the machine, or recognizes there’s no point in fighting it so they might as well play along. Why not? They’re still getting paid to, even as they’re getting chewed up and spit out.
And when it all comes down, when the company has sold itself and the schnooks working the phones are being marched out of the building before their phones even get cold, that’s when the two most powerful scenes in the movie hit. Spacey confronts his boss (Jeremy Irons) and quits in a fit of vague sympathy for his people, and is told quite calmly that no, he’ll be staying on for a couple of years because he’s needed. Oh, and not to worry, he’ll be well compensated, and really, all this is cyclical and it doesn’t really matter and the proportions of rich and poor are always going to stay the same and it’s just a question of who the labels are assigned to. All the while, he’s at dinner - fine wine, white tablecloth, white china, fine steak - and he never stops chewing. Never stops consuming long enough to address his valued, needed long-time comrade with his full attention, instead spewing the spiel which he clearly believes and which hindsight lets us know irrefutably is pure bullshit. As for Spacey, he crumbles. Gives in. Because, dammit, he needs the money, because he’s divorced and his dying dog is costing him a fortune and the one gesture of defiance he makes he has to retract on because after all these years of rolling in dough for a living, he still needs the goddamn money.
Then there’s the last scene. He’s at his house, his former house, digging a grave in the front yard for his dog. His ex wife comes out, and talks with him a while, and reassures him that his son got out of all the market chaos all right - not that he’d checked. And then she remembers herself, and remembers him, and she closes up her bathrobe, which had slipped a little bit open. She tells Spacey - out there on that lawn, half-lit in the icy blue of his expensive car, half lit in the warm yellow of the porch lamp of a house where he is no longer welcome - that he can stay out here, but she’s going back inside. That she’s turning the alarm back on. That he can’t come in.
That’s where it ends, which is about perfect. Because it is a horror movie after all.