MARGIN CALL (Dir. J.C. Chandor, 2011)
Most movie-minded folks know what a “MacGuffin” is, but for those who don’t – it’s a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, meaning an object or event that drives the plot. From the Maltese Falcon to the Ark of the Covenant to the Dude’s rug, MacGuffins are inescapable plot elements in many many movies.
In “Margin Call”, we are introduced to the MacGuffin in the form of a USB drive that Stanley Tucci, just downsized from risk management at the fictitious firm the film is set at, gives to one of his former underlings (Zachary Quinto) with the warning “be careful.”
Quinto appraises the flash drive’s content after his co-workers leave, and, after crunching some numbers, he urgently calls everybody back to the office. Senior trader Paul Bellany calls Kevin Spacey as a senior broker, stressed out about business as well for his dying dog, and the news spreads throughout the firm leading to a tension filled all-nighter.
I was less concerned with the timely play-out of how our current financial crises came into being here, than I was how Chandor’s intricately plotted scenario handled its MacGuffin. All the characters (including Simon Baker as head of securities and Demi Moore as head of risk) take a glimpse at Quinto’s computer screen and are shocked by what they see.
We never see the screen, which is understandable because it would just be a bunch of numbers we couldn’t make sense of, but we get from everybody’s reaction (“Are you sure these numbers are correct?” they all seem to ask) that the info indicates that their firm is in major trouble.
The news is so dire that CEO Jeremy Irons arrives to take control. In a heated meeting, Quinto (who is one of the film’s producers) lays it out to the steely Irons: “Sir, if those assets decrease by just 25 percent, and remain on our books, that loss would be greater than the current market capitalization of this entire company.”
It is way less complicated than it sounds. Simply stated, the MacGuffin in MARGIN CALL is like a hole in a sinking ship. All the shipmates try to fix the hole, but it’s too late.
As the Captain, Irons takes desperate measures to ensure survival, but at costs that may ruin the future of the ship, and poison the waters around them.
Cold and humorless, yet still incredibly involving, MARGIN CALL takes us into the scary isolated heart of Wall Street before the rest of us had any clue as to what was going down. Its flawless cast (particularly Quinto and Spacey, who does his best work in ages), and intense tone kept me compelled from start to finish, even when I could see right through its MacGuffin.