Film Review: The Big Short

by Keith Hill

Rated M. Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling. Directed by Adam McKay.

After watching The Big Short, I’m seriously considering withdrawing all my savings and storing it under my mattress – it’s that terrifying.

The Big Short is the true story of several key players who anticipated the catastrophic collapse of the US housing market in 2007, seeking to profit from the collapse by creating the ‘credit default swap’ market – essentially betting against the banks that people wouldn’t be able to pay their home loans, and the property bubble would burst. After being laughed at by those who thought that the housing market would continue to grow, they are eventually proven right, as the market collapses, leading to what we now know as the Global Financial Crisis.

These men who anticipated the market collapse are an eccentric group of outsiders, but it’s this position that provides the vantage point from which they are able to see the impending disaster, which others in the financial industry couldn’t (or simply chose to ignore). It’s the calibre of the acting that makes the film so watchable, with an all-star cast including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. Bale is outstanding as the oddball Michael Burry, a neurosurgeon-turned-trader with a glass eye and a complete lack of social ability. And Steve Carell is continuing to demonstrate his abilities as a dramatic actor following his Academy Award Nomination for last year’s Foxcatcher, this time taking on the role of Mark Baum, a cynical hedge-fund trader who despises Wall Street and the corruption it breeds.

Despite the seriousness of its topic, The Big Short regularly delivers some genuinely funny moments, with director Adam McKay’s background in writing and directing comedies with the likes of Will Ferrell shining through. While you would think that things like credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations would bog the film down, McKay manages to keep the vibe pretty light throughout, with characters regularly breaking the fourth wall to explain how plot points differed in real life, and cutaways to celebrities explaining complicated economics in layman’s terms – look out for Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bubble bath, and Selena Gomez playing blackjack in Las Vegas.

That’s not to say that McKay doesn’t hit you hard when the moment calls for it. While the lighter moments are needed to get though what would otherwise be some pretty dense material, you are never quite allowed to forget that what is being gambled on here is people’s lives. The market collapse will eventually result in millions of people losing their savings, their jobs and their homes, all because of the greed and cavalier attitude of the big banks that are handing out loans that people can’t afford to repay. Baum (Carell) in particular carries the moral compass of the film, becoming more and more indignant as he uncovers the truth about the socially destructive and morally bankrupt subprime mortgage industry.

What is striking throughout the film is the complete disregard which the big corporations and Wall Street traders show for the consequences of their actions. The banks and mortgage traders hand out loans that people have not ability to repay, and their combination of fraudulent activity and incredible stupidity leads to a situation that sees millions of people lose their homes and livelihood. These are men on whom people depended to give them security into the future, but who in the end are only looking after themselves.

But the Bible presents Jesus as a very different kind of leader. In Mark 6, we are shown a contrast between two rulers – King Herod, a man who looks out only for his own interests, living extravagantly at the expense of others; and Jesus, a man who has compassion on the crowds who are like lost sheep without a shepherd. And more than compassion, Jesus shows himself as the one who has the ability to provide the security we long for. He is the ruler who can supply all our needs, even our greatest need – to be reconciled to God.

The Verdict: Beneath the humour that director Adam McKay brings to The Big Short, is a truly terrifying true story of how the big banks gambled with the lives of millions of people, and ultimately lost. 4.5/5

The Big Short will be released in the US this Friday, 25th December, and in Australia on Thursday, 14th January.

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