"Margin Call" is one of the best movies of 2011.
It's also the movie anyone might need to see who wants to make solid sense of the thus-far less-than-focused aims of the sudden Occupy Wall Street eruption and its national and international brethren.
And if all of that hasn't been phrased as simply or declaratively enough try this: see it, see it, see it. It's the best news for both the present and the future of American movies I've seen all year.
Why? Its writer/director J.C. Chandor looks like a fellow still paying off student loans. At 37, he's a virtual unknown making his feature film debut. One of the film's executive producers is 34-year-old co-star Zachary Quinto -- famous, thus far, for playing the young Vulcan know-it-all Spock for J.J. Abrams' young "Star Trek" fantasy.
The people behind this movie aren't grizzled vets occupying a cracklingly written movie in angry stylistic preservation mode, they're young people making an angry but well-contained movie about the society they're expected to inherit and live in. Bravo to them all.
The cast is replete with veterans, no doubt, in a quiet fury at the giant 2008 Wall Street calamity that resulted from sub-prime mortgages becoming worthless commodities.
How good is this cast? Try this: Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany (in his best performance yet), Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci, Ashley Williams, Penn Badgley and Mary McDonnell. That is enough acting horsepower for four ordinary movies. It's so full that performers as good as McDonnell and Williams are almost thrown away in walk-on roles.
So think of a giant Wall Street firm like the fabled Goldman Sachs. "Margin Call" is about what happens inside such a mover and shaker of the American economy at the exact moment when a relatively marginal mid-level veteran in "risk management" discovers that the whole zillion-dollar corporate edifice may be built on sand and is about to topple off a cliff.
He's played by Tucci. He's got all but one small piece of the financial puzzle figured out.
The trouble is that the culture of the firm itself so virulently prefers finances over humanity that workers were long ago judged to be incidental annoyances and infinitely dispensable at a moment's notice. So now in the anti-worker climate that the major business schools seem to have given us through their MBA programs, the key guy in the whole business has, after 19 years, just been told to clear his belongings from his office and not let the door hit his unwanted butt on the way out.
The Wall Street fairyland fantasy of an America full of investors, not workers, would be lovely, but the ethic of this firm of hyperactive sharks is to make money above everything else. So what we're watching in the movie is a very long night when some ruthless but brilliant people come to terms with unloading worthless property on their own most loyal investors just so they're not caught holding the bag of offal when the whole street finds out just how much financial waste is in those bags that everyone on "the street" is selling.
It's Halloween for zillionaires. Which means, they get the treats, everyone else in America gets the tricks -- the dog dung left in flames on doorsteps. (Does the Occupy Wall Street movement begin to make a bit more sense?)
Not only, then, is this movie as prescient about national sentiment in its way as "The China Syndrome" was about actual events before Three Mile Island, it's a cerebral thriller sustained dramatically by wickedly smart underplaying of enormous power all the way through.
At one point, before the movie premiered at Sundance, an insecure Tucci (who has one of the two jaw-dropping virtuoso monologues in the movie) was actually telling people "there's no melodrama in it. There's no drama in it. That's why you may be the only people in the world to see it."
What there is in it, though, is so much credibility and so much megawatt acting talent that it is, in fact, immensely dramatic and suspenseful. You don't need to be watching squealing tires, believe me. You're watching America's ownership class at its absolute height of irresponsibility deciding what to do about its own incompetence.
It's gripping but not a pretty story. Souls are laid bare. So is harrowing soullessness. It's a better film in totality than either of Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" movies (which are unmemorable except for Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko). It's also a better film considered as a whole than James Foley's film version of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross."
In fact, as I watched new talent Chandor hit the movies with a powerhouse cast who all know what they're doing, all I could think about was the great New York director of crackling urban dialogue in small rooms and blistering American subjects, Sidney Lumet ("12 Angry Men," "Network" and "Serpico"), who died in April.
"Margin Call" proves that, in fact, Lumet lives. His angry, smoldering, actor-loving spirit is alive and well and living in filmmakers who haven't been making movies for very long.
Celebrate. And go.
4 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci
DIRECTOR: J.C. Chandor
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
RATING: R for language
THE LOWDOWN: A big Wall Street firm foresees 2008's financial earthquake when it discovers its holdings are worthless so it decides to offload them on loyal customers.