Traditional narrative structures rely on conflict. Two opposing forces are coming together across the course of a story, divided by a single issue. Usually, it’s good verse evil, and you know exactly who you want to win. Or at least, supposed to be supporting. But what do you do when there are no obvious heroes? The Big Short blurs these lines, leaving you compelled throughout, but ultimately unsure about for whom you should be rooting.
The film follows the fortunes of three groups of financial investors, during the two years before the fiscal meltdown of 2007. The crisis ultimately engulfed the entire world, with the ramifications still being felt to this day. We witness the slow-motion collapse of the American housing market by meeting those who had the foresight to predict and benefit from it.
Brad Pitt, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling are the biggest names on an accomplished cast list, playing real-life players of the money markets. They gambled on the bubble bursting, in the face of ridicule and distrust from the major banking institutions and wealthy investors.
None of the central characters are overly likeable, yet watching from the edge of my seat, I found myself willing these underdogs on to victory. The magic of real life stories, however, is you now how things turn out and instead, I felt myself beginning to think about the costs their gains would be set against. When one group investigate the growing instances of mortgage delinquency in Florida, the full horrors of the fraudulent system laid bare, are genuinely chilling.
As isolated investor Michael Burry, Bale handles the role with his trademark ability to inhabit difficult personalities, allowing the character to drive the scenes. Gosling is perfect as the motivated bank suit with the ambition to make as much money possible, off the back of his own employer’s failures. It also wouldn’t be a Brad Pitt production, if he did get to play the reformed, wise old mentor to some eager young pups, looking to make their mark in the world of high finance.
Certainly, Steve Carell’s portrayal of Mark Baum is the closest we have to an emotional compass. In the vacuum of morality that exists at all levels of the financial industries, Baum’s personal trauma and hatred of deceit, make him our best champion for humanity.
Director and co-writer Adam McKay are best known for his work with Carell in the Anchorman series and on numerous other Will Farrell comedies. Perhaps a strange choice then for a drama, but the handheld documentary approach used here adds to the urgency and quasi-documentary feel. There is no absence of humour, but dark shades prevail even when you let out a snigger. The frequent direct-to-camera breaks feel naturally woven into the story, likewise the celebrity-studded interstitials that help explain the complicated – and deliberately misleading – financial jargon at the heart of events.
One of the many strengths exhibited by The Big Short, is in not patronising the audience. Ultimately, we are the victims of the crimes uncovered, and every care is taken in ensuring you leave with a complete understanding of what caused the global financial crisis. Documentaries like Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, feel cynical and alienating in comparison, despite telling the same story with the same overall message.
The Big Short puts human faces on the people surrounding the crash, revealing stark truths that have been hiding in plain sight for the better part of the last ten years. In decades to come, we may well look back on this film as the best way to explain how Western society ate itself and capitalist culture cracked irreparably. The Big Short is the closest you’ll get to seeing a real life horror movie while simultaneously living in the real-time sequel.