'Traders': Fantasia Review

Courtesy of Fantasia Festival
A nasty Irish fable of economic inequality.

In this Death Game, the fight is voluntary.

Metaphors for cutthroat capitalism don't get much blunter than Traders, in which the me-first moneymakers in question aren't exchanging stocks and bonds but each others' lives. Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy, who've made shorts together for over 20 years, take a confident leap to features in this cold tale of economic desperation and unthinkable deeds made routine. Though its recipe of anxious misanthropy doesn't crackle from the start, the picture builds steadily to an end so satisfying it could well generate fest buzz and lead to an art house run.

"It's better to be a bum with nothing than a bum with not enough." This is the mindset of a few Dublin employees of a financial firm that just lost billions and went bust. Facing a bleak job market after getting sacked, their talk turns to "econocide" — a term that has had widely varied meanings, but here describes suicides in which white-collar men simply can't imagine existence far below their accustomed standard of living.

Vernon (John Bradley), an obese, awkward beancounter, has a brainstorm that turns this despair into an opportunity: He invents "trading," in which two participants connected anonymously online will meet to fight in a secluded spot with no spectators. Each will bring his life's savings in a duffel bag; they will fight to the death, with the winner taking both bags after burying the loser where he died.

Vernon's better looking, more accomplished former coworker Harry (Killian Scott) takes some convincing, but eventually participates in the inaugural match of this bloodsport. Though he leaves Vernon alive after beating him (a mistake he knows will haunt him), having engaged in such an extreme standoff once frees his inhibitions. Soon he is one of this new game's high achievers, doubling his money in each of a series of sordid rendezvous. Despite having had his life spared, though, Vernon feels cheated — especially after Harry befriends the woman he hopelessly loves (Nika McGuigan) — and starts plotting to get "his" money back.

One might feel the movie's premise invites some basic questions; for instance: In the real world, wouldn't it make more sense simply to meet and flip a coin to see who gets the cash, then let the loser decide for himself whether to keep on living? But while Traders isn't the first take on this kind of ultimate-stakes gambling (13 Tzameti is one of many antecedents), the specifics of its conceit are so well suited to the winners-vs.-losers realities of our economic moment viewers may be disinclined to poke holes in its logic.

Strong performances by Scott and Bradley further discourage such questions, helping shift our attention away from the big picture of the game (something 13 Tzameti and similar films rarely do) and toward the contrasting motives and mettle of the men who started it. Murphy and Moriarty pass up opportunities to emphasize black comedy here, offering just enough to enliven the picture's washed-out visual scheme and offset the abrupt viciousness of its fight scenes. Its biggest moral questions are left for the parking lot: Even if the game's participants enter willingly, is the man left standing a survivor or a villain?

Production company: COCO Television Productions Limited

Cast: Killian Scott, John Bradley, Nika McGuigan, Peter O'Meara, Barry Keoghan

Directors-Screenwriters: Rachael Moriarty, Peter Murphy

Producers: Stuart Switzer, Libby Durdy, Rachel Lysaght

Director of photography: Peter Robertson

Production designer: Francis Taaffe

Costume designer: Judith Williams

Editor: Joe McElwaine

Casting director: Maureen Hughes

No rating, 89 minutes