MARGIN CALL is one long, tense night

The most elegant quality of J.C. Chandor’s indie hit MARGIN CALL is the way in which time unfolds. It works in that hyper-dramatic way that critical life events do, burning into your memory with hours slowing into what seem like days and minutes stretching forward almost interminably. It’s practically the only cinematic tool Chandor has to play with because, speaking of play, his film – about the last 24 hours in the life of an investment firm peddling bad mortgage bonds in 2008 - feels like one. Thankfully his singular touch on the experience of time unfolding saves a film without costumes, locations or interesting lighting (it’s a lot of fluorescents inside a very drab office). We’re left with the script and the performances, which is fine, but raises the question – why not throw this on a stage and be done with it?

Well, because the cinema has a special relationship with time. It can be expanded, contracted, dragged out, snapped around. And Chandor does a very nice job of creating an uncomfortable environment in the middle of the night. His protagonist, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) discovers that his boss (Stanley Tucci) in the risk department is the latest victim in a string of layoffs and that the firm’s future profitability lies in peril. As workers peel off to the club, which serves as one of a mere three or four locations, Sullivan puts in overtime at the office, checking his work to make sure his analysis is correct. Over the course of the next several hours, alarm bells ripple through the firm to various heads of departments who are called back into the office to decide what the hell to do.

There’s great energy in the details that carry from one scene to the next over the course of the night like a young associate who went to the club is still carrying his beer bottle when he arrives back at the office and he doesn’t know where to put it, or the way shirts are re-tucked for a 4am meeting with the CEO (Jeremy Irons). All the speech and behavior says 4pm, not 4am, which feels freshly disconcerting. The executive to take part of the fall, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), watches the sun come up in her office. She sits on her window sill and takes her hair out of a pony tail. Simple, it seems, but the series of shots – portrait-like stills that jump cut as the sun rises, Sarah sitting on something in her office other than her $1,000 chair – seem radical. Behavior not ‘of the office’ is suddenly in the office, and in the middle of the night. The details enhance the drama, opening up a small window into a very big problem.