No brokers scream into phones in the Wall Street thriller Margin Call. It's a film that is eerily, dreadfully hushed and it's visually quiet, too, making menacing use of shadows.
This is the quiet you get in a horror movie just before the monster bursts through the wall - but the true terror lies in the realisation that it's been in the room the whole time.
The film's inspiration is plainly the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. (Its fictionalised equivalent is never named but the surname of CEO John Tuld (Irons) rhymes with that of the one-time head of Lehman, Richard Fuld, who made half a billion in salary and bonuses in the five years before the firm went down).
Unlike Charles Ferguson's brilliantly incendiary 2010 documentary Inside Job, Margin Call seeks neither to anatomise the collapse that sparked the 2008 global financial meltdown, nor to sheet home the blame for what happened.
Rather writer-director Chandor, a commercials veteran and feature debutant whose father spent his life working for brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, plays the story as Greek tragedy seasoned through the hypernaturalism of a David Mamet chamber piece.
His tight, marvellously crisp script - radiantly clear even if you don't know your derivatives from your futures - conceives the story as a moral fable, though the ending is more bitterly instructive than anything Aesop ever delivered.
As the film opens, the firm is conducting mass layoffs on the trading floor. Among those axed is a senior risk-management executive (Tucci), who, as he leaves, hands trader Peter Sullivan (Quinto) a flash drive and says he was "working on something" that would reward study.
That something, of course, turns out to be the first rumbling of the storm that turned from dark cloud to force 12 gale in a matter of hours.
Chandor depicts what unfolds as a series of conversations on the top of a glittering tower from which you can almost see the world below crumbling to dust.
As the traders unload to trusted buyers billions in bonds, backed by the toxic mortgages that brought the word "sub-prime" on to the front pages, Tuld crosses swords with his deputy Sam Rogers (Spacey), waving away his concerns that it's the end of everything.
"If you're first out the door, that's not called panicking," he says with a smile, and you can almost smell the sulphur on his breath.
The film extracts from its top-flight ensemble some of the best work of their careers and serves them well with handsome camerawork and a silky, quietly ominous score. It's a deeply impressive debut in a story for our times.
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci.
Director: JC Chandor.
Running time: 105 mins.
Rating: M (offensive language)
Verdict: Wall Street villainy.
- TimeOutBy Peter Calder Email Peter