A cerebral, gripping film about an elite Wall Street firm facing financial Armageddon, "Margin Call" resembles an intricate chess game with life-or-death stakes. It opens with a bloodbath, builds to an apocalypse and ends with a gravedigger doggedly excavating the earth. By the time the story is told, the blood -- sorry, red ink -- is surging down long corridors like a tidal wave.

J.C. Chandor's riveting writing/directing debut examines an all-too-familiar scenario: the self-inflicted collapse of a giant Manhattan investment house (think Lehman Bros.), taking down countless clients and a sizable chunk of the U.S. economy with it. The machinations of global investors make for a pretty esoteric topic to film, but the clever, proficient Chandor is up to the task. He gives all his characters a measure of recognizable (though not necessarily sympathetic) humanity and makes the story's twists pop like firecrackers. When newly fired risk manager Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) passes a computer file to his protégé, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), urging "Be careful," the countdown to disaster has begun. The firm's risky $6 trillion portfolio is about to implode, and Quinto's thunderstruck expression as he digests the information is akin to that of an officer on the Titanic's bridge.

Word of the crisis shoots up the chain of command, beginning with Peter's half-drunk manager Will Emerson (Paul Bettany, tightrope walking the line between a laugh and a shudder). Soon the firm's top officers are in the war room debating the best way to unload their toxic assets.

Jeremy Irons is mesmerizing as the firm's CEO, a calculating financier who will deliberately trigger an economic meltdown if there's a profitable trade in it. With Mephistophelean eloquence, he argues that acting in his own self-interest is not only prudent but virtuous. Opposing him -- maybe -- is trading chief Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey, finally playing a man who is not a smug con artist, and playing him splendidly). Sam warns that fobbing off the company's bad debt will destroy the firm's reputation and the career of every trader on his team.

David Mamet fans will find much to admire in this tale of sharp, tough-talking men (and Demi Moore as a cutthroat in heels) facing a fraught situation. And since Chandor doesn't indulge in Mamet's reflexive cynicism, the human stakes are higher. Bettany has a soliloquy on the roof of the corporate skyscraper that almost wins your sympathy for a financially pressed $2-million-a-year man. Gazing over the edge, he sighs, "It's a long way down." Even the characters we admire are vulnerable to economic pressure, and you wonder, 'Would I be above temptation?' Here is a brainy, dialogue-driven business drama that feels as vital as an adrenaline-driven Hollywood thriller.