Loosely inspired by the downfall of Lehman Brothers, J.C. Chandor's very smart trading-house drama Margin Call comes on like Boiler Room ten years later, after the money that once lubricated the system and made the world go round ran out. The temporal difference is most evident not in the look of the film - which affects the same light blue, glassy-metallic hue with which the movies have always filmed corporate edifices - but in its sound: much of the action takes place in the early hours of the morning, long after the cleaners have gone home, and crucially the punchy, bullish dialogue that defined the earlier work has been replaced by pensive, awkward exhanges and unbearable silences, passing between characters struggling to find the words to describe the colossal, game-changing malfeasance they've borne witness to. These pauses are all the better to let us register Margin Call's real subject: the ripples and shockwaves passing through a structure on the verge of collapse.
It even begins quietly: a line of low-level employees shuffling wordlessly out of the building, clutching the contents of their desks in cardboard packing boxes. (The manufacturers of the latter must surely be among the few industries enjoying a boomtime right now - along with those companies providing the paper for all the pink slips flying around.) After a small cell of analysts (Zachary Quinto's erstwhile rocket scientist, Penn Badgley, Paul Bettany as their supervisor) uncover the mishandling of certain stocks, we proceed in more or less continuous time to the upper floors, where senior performers lie in wait: Kevin Spacey as a conflicted representative of the company's managerial branch, Simon Baker and Demi Moore (built for this kind of material, like a high-end German car) as executives, and finally Jeremy Irons - Scar himself - as the CEO and fattest cat of all, calculatedly assenting to the resale of the firm's toxic assets in order to perpetuate the company, the profits it makes, and the perks its employees receive.
There's a lot of nudging papers around, on which appear figures that require considerable explanation; early scenes seek to make play out of having (offscreen) stats and graphs interpreted in terms the layman viewer might understand. Irons choppers in, and demands of the quivering Quinto that he "speak as you would to a child, or a golden retriever". Such lines recur with such frequency it's possible that Chandor intends a bleakly satirical gag here, inferring that nobody (save one lone rocket scientist) seems to know what these figures really mean - that they were gobbledygook even to those we trusted with our homes, our savings, our lives. Though one cleaner is prominently positioned standing in a lift between Baker and Moore as the execs try to work out a way to extricate themselves, if not their clients, from the growing mess - if only she could understand what they were talking about; if only we had known - the civilians in Margin Call are reduced to the status of extras or walk-ons: we see a handful of revellers from the window of a limousine, and hear a couple of harassed brokers on the other end of a telephone, but mostly we're kept out of sight and firmly out of mind. This was a world unto itself.
The tactic risks that airlessness often associated with stage adaptations (the presence of one cast member can't help but set you in mind of James Foley's screen version of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross), but the performers - even TV graduate Quinto, and likable pretty-boy Badgley, this season's Tom Everett Scott - bring it to life at every turn. Even by his considerable standards, Spacey does exceptional work in a penultimate-reel speech to his staff that identifies him, rather than his cowardly superiors, as the true captain of this sinking ship. (Older viewers may be reminded of Noel Coward in In Which We Serve.) And Chandor does something unusual, if not genuinely radical, at this particular moment in time in showing us traders with credibly troubled consciences, as well as the ruthless bastards who sold us all up the river: Bettany has a skilfully acted run-out as a mid-level tipping point caught between exposing and extending the corruption, a highflier who happily admits to blowing thousands of dollars of his own on prostitutes, yet appears thoroughly appalled with the risks his bosses took with other people's money. Even as we plunged into the red, it seems there were still shades of grey.
Margin Call opens in selected cinemas from Friday.