Review: The Big Short

Alexander Atienza - September 14, 2016

Unless they have been living under a rock for the past ten years, most viewers already know how The Big Short will end. However, it deftly avoids the emotivism that many dramas project onto their subject matter. Rather than generalizing about the human experience, the film revels in exploring a specific historical event in all its convoluted glory.

If the film does make a larger point, it presents a broad skepticism through its refrain that large numbers of people can still be wrong. A detailed explanation of the 2008 financial crisis, it rarely delves into the private lives of its protagonists the people who foresaw it. Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt are all unrecognizable in their roles (all unsympathetic), and Christian Bale manages to capture the facial mannerisms of Dr. Michael Barry with uncanny confidence. However, one might argue that the crisis itself is the main character. Believable dialogue evinces a confident grasp of jargon, and jarring montages of pop music videos situate events chronologically, underscoring the cynicism toward consumerism and materialism that fuels the film's outlook on the financial crisis.

Oftentimes, the moralizing about financial corruption might come across as patronizing, while the unending exposition endows viewers with a veneer of economic savvy, as if to show that, through Socratic question-and-answer, the consequences of greed on Wall Street were really obvious all along. Admittedly, the screenwriters Adam McKay and Charles Randolph elaborate on financial and economic concepts in a way similar to Christopher Nolan's descriptions of scientific phenomena: adding to the script newbs who need things explained to them, which in McKay's case is done by breaking the fourth wall. This is partly a consequence of The The Big Short's premise, which is that a few people foresaw a disaster that nobody else did, and seeing events unfold from their perspective reveals their prescience in retrospect. Nevertheless, this narrative weakness does not dilute the stylistic novelty with which the subject is tackled, which produces a tone fitting for an event of such magnitude.

The film is imbued with anxious, frenetic energy due in large part to its cinematography and editing. The pairing of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Hank Corwin, the talents behind United 93 and The Tree of Life, give gravity to what might have otherwise turned into a disposable cautionary tale about corporate greed. Saccadic jolts of the camera accentuate Dr. Barry's facial tics, and bits of dialogue bleed into the next scene or cut off mid-sentence, placing the viewer in the role of the intent observer. Occasionally, during tense moments of silence, the camera will crash zoom to isolate a character, as if nudging him to speak. Freeze frames and Ken Burns-style zooms create the effect of a mélange of archival footage, and nonlinear editing and liberal use of jump cuts add to the dizzyingly analytical and explosively high-stakes story.

Adam McKay's latest film appears to have descended from the plays of Bertolt Brecht, who alienated his audiences through similar techniques to inspire critical thinking. Ambitious, irreverent, and apocalyptic in its affect, the polemic goals of The Big Short fit the same profile, leaving one feeling horrified and standing as one of the best films of 2015.

Alexander Atienza

Alexander Atienza is a junior studying cognitive science. Raised in Maryland and educated in Washington, DC, Alex is the Marketing Director for PCI. In addition to the Penn Cinema Initiative, Alex is also a board member of the Penn Philippine Association and the Polybian Society, Penn’s largest nonpartisan intellectual society. He enjoys creative writing between classes, dinner, and board meetings. Alex’s interests include aesthetics, filmmaking, and philosophy of mind, and his favorite films include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Rushmore. You may find him wandering around campus with his camera or a book on film theory.