There's a strange element to films based on specific historic events, in that you are aware of the ending before the film even starts. The plane was always going to crash and kill everyone on board at the end of United 93 (2006), Frank Abagnale Jr was always going to get caught in Catch me if you Can (2002), and Hitler was always going to top himself before Downfall (2004) drew to a close. However, these films were all the work of highly skilled directors known for their exceptional ability to tell a story, and they are able to keep us hooked despite the inevitable.

Margin Call (2011), concerning the night before the 2008 global financial crisis, was always going to end in the biggest shitstorm in modern capitalism, but smartly uses the predetermined resolution to its advantage. J.C Chandor's film is one that you may already know the ending to, but remains a firm demonstration that the journey itself is more important that the destination.

Margin Call is certainly effective because of the presence of well-handled tension, but equally intriguing is the flailing needle of its moral compass. Because of the diversity in morals on show, from the righteous to the irredeemable, it remains unclear as to what side of the right / wrong divide the film will settle on, thus keeping us in the dark on every move, and waiting on every word

Fig i: Margin Call (2011) Dir - J.C Chandor


Criminally under-seen considering the names in its cast (Spacey, Moore, Tucci and Irons amongst others), Margin Call is a taut financial thriller that charts the crumbling of the world economy from the inside, at its very source. Told from the perspective of the analyst that discovers the failing numbers, the film follows the news to the very top of the food chain, culminating in a 04:15am boardroom meeting /meltdown and the ensuing morning of the crises itself.

The way in which Margin Call differs to last year's The Big Short (2015), a film dealing with the same event albeit in a much more comedic and extravagant way, is that its characters avoid caricature. Where The Big Short deals with hyperactive man-children and indulges in the 'sleazeball' banker stereotype, Margin Call deals in jaded office workers and desperate executives, defined by a life beyond their cubicles and separate entities to the Rolex on their wrist.

This is a vital difference in the sense that, when combined with the idea of having multiple levels of morality to explore, Chandor actually designs his film to tell us something about the idea of wealth, rather than simply using it as a jumping off point to vilify Wall Street. After all, the sleazebag is essentially about as accurate as the redneck - there are certainly some, but they're not all like that.

Fig ii: The imagery often draws attention to a specific, determined end point, playing into the idea that we are aware of the film's resolution.


The effect of wealth throughout the building and the ways in which each character interacts with the impending possible loss of not just their money, but all money, produces some incredibly expressive images. These images become increasingly severe as the stakes get higher - the more important to the bank and obscenely wealthy the character is, the more explicit the imagery telling us of their inner attitudes.

So with this in mind, I would like to analyse a number of images throughout the film, and why these images play into the drip feed of information provided to us regarding the character's differing perspectives and morals.

Firstly, we see Will Emerson, head of trading, driving in his luxury sports cat with Seth, the firm's junior analyst in the passenger seat. Seth worries about being fired, insisting that this job was all he ever wanted, and has previously expressed an admiration of Will after learning of the 2.3 million dollars he took home the year previous, 75,000 of which he spent on hookers.

The image shows us wealth, exuberance, expertly tailored suits and highlights Will's vast material value, but the one thing missing is a smile. Throughout the film, despite his monetary wealth, Will Emerson barely cracks a smile, the one time he does being after nearly jumping from the roof of the bank. Below (fig iii) we see Seth and Emerson, driving through New York, locked deep in their own selfish trances, worried more about themselves and their jobs as opposed to the rest of the world they have flung into disarray,

Fig iii: Seth and Will, wealthy but unfulfilled.


Similarly, Jared Cohen, senior executive, division head, and Will's bosses boss, is often depicted in shots such as the below (fig iv). Through this recurring shot, it is established that there is almost an inherent emptiness to his character and his desperation for occupational success at any cost. We see him sat in front of the high storey windows, with the blurred outline of the cityscape on the other side. Through this shot we can infer that there is no world beyond the window for him, that he is trapped by his own lust for money. Cohen is never seen outside the bank, and he hangs on to his success with not a thought of loyalty or decency.

Fig iv: Cohen in the window, the city beyond it blurred and insignificant to him.


At the other end of the scale, we have Peter and Sam, Junior risk analyst and head of Sales and trading respectively, the moral hearts of the film. Spacey's Sam knows right from wrong, and has no qualms against telling anyone this fact, whilst Quinto's Peter remains a naïve, innocent bystander caught up in the carnage. However, though they may appear 'good' Chandor tells us through a well-composed image that they are seemingly as empty as every other character, be it In a wholly different manner.

Sam agrees to help in an immoral fire sale, wherein the company knowingly and maliciously sells off its bad assets before anyone realises what they are buying into, and it is implied Peter will be given a large promotion and raise for his participation. We see them stood together in an elevator, with empty space to their right signifying the hollowness of their actions despite their good intentions.

Fig v: Sam and Peter on the elevator, note the empty space around them, a recurring idea throughout the film.


Finally we reach Jeremy Iron's John Tuld - CEO, ruthless bastard and the smartest person in every room. Tuld is the highest member of the food chain and therefore arguably adopts the film's most telling imagery. In fig vi, we see him framed against the city, the world he has just plunged into chaos, casually eating his breakfast and reading the paper. The frame Expands on the ideas present in Cohen's window shot, though this scene however takes a much darker turn when analysed in comparison.

Where the city behind Cohen was blurred and out of focus, behind Tuld it is in a pristine panoramic view. Cohen was unable to see past the window due to his own greed and desperation to stay wealthy, whereas on the other hand, Tuld can see through perfectly. The CEO does what he does knowing the consequences, but goes ahead anyway for another chance to save his personal wealth, betraying the trust of every person he has ever sold to.

Fig vi: Tuld eating breakfast, again the theme of emptiness is emphasised. Also interesting is the skyline's resemblance to a depreciating line chart.


Tuld is rich in material, but poor in almost every other department. He eats alone, sharing the room with no one else and the space opposite him not even prepared to host a guest. He is empty, alone and doesn't care, the composition of the frame reflecting this. Though he is by far and away the most intelligent, capable and wealthy member of the institution, he has had to lose everything to gain this.

Chador is able to thread a consistent theme through his ensemble cast, but does enough to differentiate between them and populate the skyscraper with believable characters, each with their own set of ambitions and reservations. A niche community complete with heroes and villains, some fighting for justice whilst others for money.

We may already know the end of Margin Call, but it is this considered handling of character and cast that makes the journey there so intensely fascinating. We as an audience get a real sense of this monumental firm slowly toppling, sending some falling from the windows, whilst others cling on for dear life.