'Equity': Sundance Review

Equity still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
An entertaining and smart feminist feature.

Anna Gunn ('Breaking Bad') dons power suits to star in a female-centric thriller set on Wall Street.

Making industry headlines before it even screened at the ongoing Sundance Film Festival when Sony Pictures Classics acquired it for distribution, Equity is a smart thriller set in the corporate world that disguises its modest budget with an intelligent script and good set of hooks. Promoting itself as “the first female-driven Wall Street movie,” the film’s plot revolves mostly around female characters, while it’s also been directed (by Meera Menon), written (by Amy Fox) and produced (by co-stars Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas) by women. And yet, perhaps the most winning thing about Equity it that it’s not some kind of worthy empowerment drama about sisters doing if for themselves. Instead, although sexism in the workplace is definitely addressed, it plays more like an old-school noir with the sexes casually reversed, featuring a deeply flawed protagonist (Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn), a seductive but duplicitous homme fatale (James Purefoy) and others navigating their way through a miasma of an ethically shady urban world.

Made, according to the producers during an onstage Q&A at Sundance, with backing and advice from people working within the financial sector, Equity offers a notably different view of the world of stock and shares from such recent Wall Street stories as The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short. Where both of the latter were, under all the clowning, ultimately moralistic satires, deeply critical of hyper-capitalism, Equity is quietly embedded or perhaps a more honest, realistic depiction. Certainly, there’s a lot less hedonism than Wolf (the wildest thing anyone does is sip a glass of wine while pregnant) and a much richer evocation than in The Big Short of how bankers actually live. Production designer Diane Lederman and whoever else might have advised the film get exactly right the kind of art — some of it very good, some of it tacky, expensive trash — that investment bankers have in their apartments.

It’s hard to gauge how the pic wants us to react when its lead character, Naomi Bishop (Gunn), unapologetically tells a room full of networking women at the beginning that she “likes money.” She likes it not just because it can pay for things such as her younger brothers’ education or beautiful diamond earrings for herself, but because numbers fascinate her, the financial world is a game she loves to play and, of course, money is power.

At the same time, she’s well aware there’s a cost to success, especially if you are one of the few women in a male-dominated profession. The visuals often slyly underscore her difference not so much through costume, as one might expect (although the film plays some fun symbolic tricks with the color green), but by having Gunn’s longish blond hair stand out against a sea of men with dark, short back-and-sides. Naomi is no feminist role model. When a junior executive and right-hand woman Erin (Thomas) asks Naomi to advocate on her behalf for a promotion, she shuts her down, apparently not willing to risk her own hard-won position to help another. Erin is only useful to Naomi in so far as she’s good at her job and willing to use a bit of feminine charm on a tech company’s creepy CEO (Samuel Roukin) to secure their firm as underwriters for an upcoming IPO.

It’s this pending share offer that drives the plot, prompting Naomi’s slippery colleague-lover Michael (Purefoy) to show his true sleazy colors as he fishes for insider information to sell on to his buddies at a hedge fund, rightly once again depicted as the bad guys after their bizarre image rehabilitation in The Big Short. That said, viewers who have seen the latter film will be grateful for the primer it provides in financial concepts, as Equity doesn’t have Selena Gomez or Anthony Bourdain on hand to give fourth-wall-breaking explanations of how, say, share valuation works.

Anyway, Naomi’s old friend from college, Sam (Orange Is the New Black's Reiner), a state attorney investigating securities fraud, pressures Naomi to help her sniff insider dealing at her firm. But Sam, a woman with a wife and two young children to support on a comparatively low government salary, has her own ambitions and temptations. At the end of the day, underscored by Fox’s neatly symmetrical screenplay, Sam also likes money. The moral is that, as Naomi tells Sam’s children at one point when they insist they don’t talk to strangers, “it’s really your friends who will stab you in the back.”

The film’s pacing drags a little in the mid-section, and the screenplay is sometimes a little too densely packed with incident and subplots. But even that bagginess has an upside, and it’s enjoyable how much the most briefly-met characters — a long-suffering compliance officer, Erin’s drippy boyfriend — get to have a personality. The leads, especially the women, offer subtle but gutsy work, none more so than Gunn, whose imperious Naomi, chewing out of an underling for daring to offer her a cookie light in chocolate (“Count the f—ing chips!”), could go toe-to-toe with Walter “I’m the one who knocks” White.

Production companies: A Broad Street production
Cast: Anna Gunn, James Purefoy, Sarah Megan Thomas, Alysia Reiner, Samuel Roukin, Craig Bierko, Nate Corddry, Nick Gehlfuss, Carrie Preston
Director: Meera Menon
Screenwriter: Amy Fox, based on a story by Sarah Megan Thomas, Alysia Reiner, Amy Fox
Producers: Alysia Reiner, Sarah Megan Thomas
Co-producers: Susan Bevan, Barbara Byrne, Suzanne Ordas Curry, Anthony Daddino, Salima Habib, Cecilia Herbert, David Hoffman, Audrey McNiff, Linda Zwack Munger, Linnea Roberts, Christine Toretti, Larry Weitzner
Director of photography: Eric Lin
Editor: Andrew Hafitz
Production designer: Diane Lederman
Costume designer: Teresa Binder Westby
Composer: Alexis and Sam
Casting: Stephanie Holbrook

Not rated, 100 minutes