The Big Short does not deal in subtly. The (mostly) true story is filled with jarring cuts, jarring personalities, loud music, and a whole bunch of people you’ll grow to hate almost immediately. Before all that, we get a voice-over from Ryan Gosling. (Before I get into the whole discussion on The Big Short, let it just be said that in any of his non-rom-com roles, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Ryan Gosling talk this much.) As always, spoilers. In this case, looking at the history of the economic collapse might also qualify as a spoiler for the movie. Or reading the book on which the movie is based. Anyway, I have my principles, so you’ve been warned.
Gosling’s character, Jared Vennett, introduces us to the banking climate: what used to be a boring job is now a high-stakes, money-making roller coaster. Everyone can get rich in the world of big banking, and the American economy grew as a result. While no one paid much attention to the finance sector, it became a dangerous sector. Vennett is but one of four different types of people who are responding to the idea that something terrible is bound to happen soon. He’s the profiteer. He’s also working in one of the big banks, and so cannot bet against them (which is, to put it simply, what a “short” is on a bond – a bet that it will fail, by means of unpaid mortgages.)
Vennett got his info from Michael Burry (M.D.) played by Christian Bale – a doctor with an eye for detail (only one – the other is fake) who notices the bubble. He’s read the bonds. He knows what’s wrong, and too stubborn to consider that he might have made a mistaken (in gambling $1.3bn on shorts.)
Vennett, upon realising he can profit from this situation if he finds the right people to work with, stumbles upon Mark Baum – the man who wants to fix the world. He’s the original social justice warrior. He despises injustice. He’ll shout at someone in the middle of a store or in the middle of the street over it. He’s constantly on the phone. He skips his therapy. Steve Carell plays him excellently. (And further proves to me that, when playing more serious roles than, say those in Evan Almighty or The 40-Year Old Virgin, he actually can act. He’s fine in Comedy, but he stands out in Drama in an unexpected way.)
Finally, there’s the unlikely duo of Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who stumble upon notes left behind by Vennett. If Vennett wants pure profit, Burry wants to prove he’s right, and Baum wants justice, Geller and Shipley want to prove that they can make it in the world of big finance. They’re the underdogs. They aren’t respected in the financial world. They recruit Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them. Presumably he’s got money and a reputation.
Four approaches, four groups of people, one big problem.
Baum’s team expose us to the reality of the situation outside of the figures. They’re the only ones who bother to investigate if the numbers Burry’s looking at amount to anything. They show us a housing market struggling to stay in its feet, with people moving out of nice neighbourhoods because they can’t afford the mortgage anymore after they become unemployed. They show us the bankers who’ll give anyone a mortgage, whatever their income, because they can get rich off it. They show us a family man who’s landlord isn’t paying his mortgage, and a stripper with multiple mortgages on multiple houses. They show us the dirty reality of what the big banks did to America.
Throughout, we’re presented with a combination of stylised footage – some of it aged to represent the time in which the scene is set – and stock footage. The stock footage tells us when we are in American history, and demonstrates the mood of the era. It’s all about the money. Capitalism is at large. Everyone lives like the party will never end. Combined with our traditional narrative, this tells us an interesting story about banking – we’ve got the media mood, and the terrifying reality acted out for us. Banking terms are explained to us by famous models and scientists. The truth of every situation is explained by actors breaking the fourth wall. And all the time, there’s noise.
Noise pounds from the speakers. When it’s not Burry’s outrageously loud heavy metal, it’s the chatter of bankers, or the literal gambling of Vegas. There’s a laugh track when the big banking joke is revealed to Baum – who looks ready to explode. When no one’s talking, there’s music. When people are talking, usually there’s a lot of background noise present to drown them out. Anything important that could be said is covered up by the noise of the Big Bank America.
As our bankers and gamblers leave their Vegas hotel, anyone who would seek to do right leaves by cab. By now, they know that if they’re right, if they win big, the economy collapses. The global economy. It’s bigger than they realised. Geller and Shipley are the naive faces of young bankers, not realising the reality of the situation until Rickert points it out to them. Geller has to call his mother to deal with the anxiety. But while they leave in their cabs from Vegas, the bankers leave in expensive black cars, with private drivers. An SEC agent leaves by cab, after a long kiss with one of the big bankers – regulators and fraudsters are in bed together.
It’s a harrowing movie, in its terrifying truth. By telling us what everything means in layman’s terms, we can see more easily how much the big banks refused to care about the damage they were doing. The crumbling of the American Dream is seen too clearly, too painfully, in the faces of our more moral protagonists and the unfortunate people they encounter along the way. They come out rich, but miserable. There are no winners when there are big shorts, and the movie holds no punches in making that clear.