A staggering surprise that defies expectations, “Trader” is a tour-de-force of engaging, explosive bottle horror that demands to be seen.
Trader doesn’t sound like a film that would be as overwhelmingly captivating as it is. It sounds a bit dull on paper, especially for those of us who have zero interest in the world of high-risk, high-reward day trading.
But I assure you, there is nothing remotely dull about this inventive bottle film that challenges expectations and convention at every turn and takes viewers on the most unpredictable and unforgettable journey.
Even if you’re like me and pay little attention to the whims of the stock market, you likely heard about the 2021 GameStock stock market frenzy.
There’s even a three-part docuseries on Netflix called Eat the Rich: The GameStop Saga and an upcoming film called Dumb Money, starring Paul Dano and directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya and Cruella), about the story of everyday people who turned a fledging video-game retailer into a successful company by betting on the stock market.
For those unfamiliar, here are the basics.
GameStop was on the brink of death in 2019, with stocks trading at a paltry $5 share. Then, suddenly the stock price soared to an unbelievable $325 a share — an 8,000%-plus increase. And retail investors, also known as day traders who try to capitalize on short-term price movements, seemed to be at the helm.
While big hedge funds were “shorting” the stock, essentially betting that the company’s shares would plummet, deep-pocketed private investors were busy buying up shares. Wall Street said the company was doomed, but Redditors on the popular WallStreetBets forum wanted to stick it to the power brokers. The organized might of this Reddit thread (with users in the millions) sent GameStop soaring and caused an estimated $19 billion of losses for short sellers in the company.
Even if the world of day trading is foreign to you, the GameStop saga remains a wildly fascinating story that permanently changed the stock market game, driven by the evolution of technology and the democratization of investing.
I tell you all this because it sets the stage for the premise of Trader, which revolves around a manipulative sociopath who discovers a passion for stock market trading and uses her cunning and tech-savvy to try to conquer the financial world — all from the confines of her basement apartment.
To be transparent, that description didn’t pique my interest. But given the significant festival buzz the film received and the fact that the always reliable XYZ Films acquired it, I decided to give it a go.
And boy, oh boy, I’m glad I did. Trader defied and exceeded every expectation I had for it.
We first meet our protagonist/antagonist — a villain and an anti-hero — as she is talking on the phone alone in a dark and dingy basement apartment. The woman, whose name we never learn (played by the absolutely brilliant Kimberly-Sue Murray, listed in the credits only as Trader), is in the middle of committing credit card fraud, ruthlessly scamming an elderly man out of his limited income and prescription drug access.
The conniving con artist — perpetually hopped up on energy drinks and pills and snorting Wasabi to stay awake — is easy to loathe as we watch her accumulate a hefty bank balance by reselling items purchased with stolen credit cards.
With her profit, she starts looking for ways to expedite her earnings. This leads her to begin voraciously studying the keys to stock market investing, eventually discovering the world of day trading.
A financial expert warns her to avoid the volatile world of day trading, as it can quickly consume her life. She’s told it requires those who want to be successful to stay locked in a room, sacrificing eating and sleeping, permanently glued to a computer screen. But that warning only serves to further entice Trader, who already lives a solitary, permanently wired lifestyle.
Once Trader has her eyes set on the prize, she becomes obsessed.
She dives deep into the world of online trading, joining a forum called MarketMouth (no doubt based on the WallStreetBets forum that changed the course of investing history).
There she quickly hones in on the top dog of the forum, the man with the most clout and influence. He’s called Bob the Broker (voiced by Shaun Benson).
She creates a fake profile using a picture of a beautiful woman as bait and begins to make a splash on the forum with her razor-sharp instincts and impressive trading aptitude. Bob takes immediate notice. He wants to video chat with her. Pretending her webcam is broken, she offers a phone call instead. Using a fake voice, she quickly seduces him.
Bob confesses he’s a real-life stockbroker who uses the message forum to manipulate the stock market and rack up a windfall for himself and his firm.
He mentors Trader, giving her sage advice about how the market runs — on fear, greed, and hype. He urges her not to buy the hype but rather to create it. “Start the fire yourself, and you’ll never get burned,” he proffers. She takes the advice to heart and starts devising a plan to manipulate the market to her advantage.
Trader becomes consumed by her singular focus, immersed in a world of greens and reds, otherwise known as the longs and shorts of trading that determine success. The film masterfully immerses the viewer in this world alongside our main character through green and red lighting and some simple but incredibly striking visuals.
As we learn more about Trader’s motivations — and the lengths she’s willing to go to win at all costs — the film suddenly morphs into something you aren’t expecting. Just when you think she’s mined the depths of depravity, Trader somehow makes you root for her as she sets her sights on much bigger fish.
Much of that is owed to a spellbinding performance from Murray.
As the only character to ever appear on screen throughout the duration of the film (a handful of others are heard briefly on the phone), she has a Herculean task. The success of the film rises and falls on her capable shoulders, and she more than delivers the goods.
It’s remarkable how disgusted you can be by her actions and how simultaneously titillated you are by her shrewd tactics and sheer determination.
It helps that, as low as she’s willing to go, she does battle with mega pharmaceutical companies and power brokers — symbols of grotesque wealth, greed, and power. Thus, you want her to win, even if she’s deeply flawed.
During its lean runtime, just under 90 minutes, Trader never leaves the confines of its claustrophobic basement. And while there are some cool visual tricks and compelling shots — especially scenes that feature Murray in white underwear against an entirely black backdrop while covered in red and green paint — it’s all very stripped down.
This is entirely an example of less is more and the combined power of a wickedly savvy filmmaker and a phenomenal onscreen talent to draw you in and keep you on the hook without the usual bells and whistles we’ve come to expect.
Trader sounds like it should be tedious and monotonous. Never is it, not for a moment.
Murray’s Trader is not a black-and-white villain.
Even when she’s doing very bad things, she could be considered the hero of a film that opens with the tagline, “This is a success story.”
Not only is she taking on corporate giants, but she’s trying to claw her way into a definite boys club, using her sexuality to flip the script and manipulate those misogynistic men hoping to manipulate her.
We get so few great female villains in genre films. And those we do get tend to be caricatures, unhinged baddies that never feel realistic. They may be sadistic, but they lack depth and complexity. But Trader is different. Though we never dig deep into her motives or backstory (she offers one to Bob, but as an unreliable narrator, we can’t be sure if she’s genuine or just further reeling him in) feels multi-dimensional and truly authentic.
It cannot be overstated how stellar Murray’s performance is. Sadly, I don’t expect the mainstream awards to recognize her efforts; but such recognition would be more than warranted.
The ending is an absolute home run. At about the hour mark, Trader goes into overdrive, and the twisted but oddly satisfying finale will blow you away. I never imagined being so invested in the plight of a character I initially found so repugnant.
Writer/director Corey Stanton knocks this one out of the park, building a small but immersive world that maximizes tension and thrills. I suspect most viewers will find there isn’t a moment of this film when they aren’t utterly engrossed.
It’s a masterclass in indie filmmaking and likely to be one of the most memorable and original films you’ll see all year.