I saw the new film Margin Call this weekend, a restrained, engrossing story based on Lehman Brothers’ sell-off of toxic assets, which helped precipitate the 2008 collapse. At the center of the story is Sam Rogers, a life-long Wall Streeter played by Kevin Spacey. Early in the film, we see Sam resting his head on the neck of his chocolate Labrador, who sleeps on a veterinarian’s gurney. We know the dog has cancer. It is a sad, human and completely unexpected moment in a film about ambition, greed and overreaching.
For the majority of the story, Sam’s relationship with his dog is one of the few personal facts we know about him (or anyone), and it is the only expression of authentic affection and empathy in the picture. It communicates Sam’s capacity for love. At the same time, he is not at the bedside of a child or a wife, nor is anyone with him when he visits the dog. So we also know, he is down to a last chip or two in terms of his loving connections. In just a few frames, writer/director J.C. Chandor accomplished so much—which got me thinking about what dogs mean to us and how often they are used to elucidate human character in movies, stories and, more cynically, advertising. Dogs are one of the ways we define ourselves—for better or for worse. In this case, for better.