This is a film that should not work. The plot follows the slow degradation of the financial markets, so it has an opaque and complex narrative where the filmmakers have to work really hard to simplify things, like Collateralised Debt Obligations, that most of us neither understand nor care about. It's set in the world of high finance which, apart from the superficial sparkle that grotesque amounts money can spawn, is a pretty dull place. Plus, it's a story to which we all know the outcome.
And yet it succeeds brilliantly. It is incredibly well directed by the most unlikely person: goofball-comedy specialist, Adam McKay. The editing, pacing and tone are all flawless. It’s light of touch, yet moral without being sanctimonious, convincingly depicting the brutal, feral nature of its dog-eat-dog setting and conveying the excitement of ‘the deal’ without losing sight of the tragedy that the real victims of the greed and sickening crookedness were the poor.
And it features outstanding acting across-the-board. Characters that could easily have been ciphers or appeared simplistically obnoxious are humanised, without being Hollywood-ised.
The whole cast is terrific but the technique of the four name stars – Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt – is deeply impressive. Their unobtrusive but masterful relationship with the camera shows why they are heavyweights.
Christian Bale, playing a super-high-functioning investor with Asperger's, works the doughnut (if this means nothing to you, you can read more about it in my book ‘From Stage To Screen: a theatre actor's guide to working on camera’) well but conventionally. He lets us in, but we're not sure what we see there, which entirely befits a character who knows he is an oddball but is powerless to change it.
Ryan Gosling is similarly straightforward and available. We don't see much behind his eyes either because, as he acknowledges, he's greedy and shallow and that's about it.
Both these actors have repeatedly shown themselves to be versatile, daring and the antithesis of vain. I simply wouldn't have recognised Ryan Gosling as the same actor who was in A Place beyond the Pines.
But it's Steve Carrell and Brad Pitt who I think are most impressive.
I've been a big fan of Steve Carrell as an actor ever since Little Miss Sunshine. Unlike many comics (see my previous blog about being liked) he has no problem with switching off the funny guy. Here he delivers a performance that is not just brave – he doesn’t appear to care whether or not we like him - it’s also very technically adept. He plays way outside the doughnut, frequently allowing us little or no access; his focus is repeatedly down as he struggles with his rage. He doesn't make a lot of eye contact with his colleagues and it feels similarly that he doesn’t want to make eye contact with us.
And Brad Pitt takes this further in his role as a reclusive ex-banker. He's jaded and cynical and relieved to be out of the poisonous world of high finance. Consequently most of the time he averts his gaze from the camera, reluctant to involve himself and seemingly wanting to hide from us. His performance is superbly, invisibly controlled. As the story progresses, he slowly opens himself up to the camera, edging towards the doughnut, until finally we can see both eyes. But even then he positions his head such that the rim of his glasses semi-obscures his eyes from the camera lens.
You have probably met people in life who do this. When they look you in the eye, they tilt their heads such that the rim of their glasses is always between their pupils and yours. It’s no accident. It may not be conscious, but I have no doubt that it’s prompted by a subconscious apprehension or anxiety about the intimacy that comes with eye contact.
I know nothing about the working methods of any of these actors. But, whether deliberately or not, they are all choosing a relationship with the camera that is entirely consistent with their character and therefore allows us to understand more about them.