By Bill Arceneaux
There are fewer things I enjoy more than a film with an axe to grind, and The Big Short is one of those films. From atop its soapbox, screaming from a megaphone, it presents a story of gross negligence, insane hubris and, of course, rampant greed. A mostly true story, this film shockingly has no happy ending or lessons learned. It’s a horrifyingly pessimistic view of the modern financial sector, and it really couldn’t be done in any other way.
Helmed by Anchorman’s Adam McKay, The Big Short follows a group of analysts and managers who saw something that no one else could or wanted to; that the American economy was about to fall and in a big way. The 2008 crash left many unemployed and homeless in its wake, as well as some with lucrative bonuses and rich futures. But did anything change? Who went to jail? Were safeguards put in place? Did the system get overhauled? Answers to these questions are built to for nearly two hours, only to be paid off in the most buzzkill of ways.
Recently, I watched Spike Lee’s epic Chi-Raq in theaters — a movie just as incendiary. Where Lee was expressing more of a call to arms, McKay sees the futile absurdity, not unlike the great In the Loop, which explored the zaniness behind the lead up to the Iraq war. Loop and Short are very similar, not just in how silly/scary the scenarios are or how the piss is taken out of our “leaders,” but in the portrayal of the main characters. These men and women exist in an almost gray void, peering out into a black and white world with intentions that may or may not be pure, but are extensions of the environment they see. Neither film has heroes, but rather people dealing with and in broken structures. And, in both films, little to nothing can be done to fix anything. Why even try?
Steve Carell and Christian Bale are the standouts here, representing perfectly the heart, mind and soul of the film. Both men are fairly socially awkward, Bale possibly being someone with Asperger’s and Carell with anger issues. In discovering what they do, decisions are made to exploit through betting against the market. For Bale, it’s just his job. It’s what he’s good at. For Carell, it’s an opportunity to take back what the banks have gotten away with for years. It’s a shot at revenge. However they go about their plans, they are still within the very system that’s going down. And the weight of the falling shoe is felt heavily by them. Carell wears it in his shoulders, Bale in his attitude.
The Big Short, through these men and others, deals in knowledge before the fact and depression after the fact. It’s a movie of burden. The burden of being right. The burden of not speaking up for whatever reason. The burden of greed, in whatever form. The burden of Capitalism even. While it’s a rich movie in just about every sense, it’s also anxiety ridden and mad as hell. And it has every right to be. But still, why even try, if nothing is or will ever be gained?
The final shot of the movie calls back to an incident from Carell’s past. Something he refuses to talk about. When he does open up, he reveals how, when given the opportunity to do something significant, he chose just to offer money. Through his fault, he changes. Maybe within something terrible, someone will understand something. Someone will change. Something will change. Too bad things have to get drastic first.
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