Equity, an expertly crafted financial thriller, is being billed as the first movie ever made about women on Wall Street. Press materials explain that it was “directed, written, produced, and financed by women, a collaboration among women in entertainment and business leaders in finance—the real-life women of Wall Street—who chose to invest in this film because they wanted to see their story told.” Writer-producer-stars Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas deliver on that promise, weaving into their suspense story many potent observations about the challenges faced by women in high finance. But you have to wonder if the movie’s backers really understood what they were getting into, because the three women at the center of the story are less than heroic. What makes Equity not just a good drama but a great and daring one is that its female characters can be as greedy, ruthless, amoral, and duplicitous as their male counterparts.
Only Nixon could go to China, and only women could get away with writing a movie that portrays professional women so cynically. That sort of rigorous self-examination is a primary benefit of having more diverse voices in the movie business. Male filmmakers tend to define women characters through their relationships with men, whereas female filmmakers are more likely to define women characters through their conflicts with each other. Amid all the financial skullduggery of Equity, Reiner, Thomas, and cowriter Amy Fox find time to expose a generational fault line between the film’s two older women characters, who are more accustomed to exploiting their attractiveness for professional reasons, and the younger one, who finds that sort of tactic beneath her. This is only one aspect of a finely layered story, but the question of whether women should take advantage of their looks in business cuts right to the heart of a macho culture in which they’ve traditionally been viewed as prizes.
Sorority doesn’t count for much in the cutthroat world of investment banking. Middle-aged Naomi (Anna Gunn) has taken nine Silicon Valley companies public, but her last stock offering was a messy affair that damaged her professional reputation. Coming up in the ranks behind her is Erin (Thomas), a smart, ambitious, and strikingly pretty woman who presses Naomi for a raise early in the story and begins to outflank her in front of her superiors. Erin rescues Naomi during a meeting in which they’re courting the business of Ed (Samuel Roukin), a smug tech entrepreneur, and later persuades him to sign an indemnity clause that Naomi needs to keep the deal from falling apart. At the same time Naomi must defend herself from Samantha (Reiner), an old college pal now working for the Justice Department. Samantha wants to nail a hedge-fund buccaneer for insider trading, and she hopes to get the goods on him through Naomi’s lover, Michael (James Purefoy), who works in another division of the investment firm and has dealings with the suspect.
Naomi comes across as a woman with too much self-respect to sleep her way to the top, but she’s also a survivor, and she’s come to accept that women need to use whatever tools they have at their disposal. “You seem to be taking care of Ed,” she notes sarcastically after unexpectedly finding Erin at dinner with their client. When Erin protests her innocence, Naomi replies, “When Ed hits on you, whatever you do with that, that’s your business.” Erin in turn learns something private about her boss when she shows up at Naomi’s door late one evening and finds her intimately involved with Michael. Workplace romances are discouraged at the firm because they can lead to proprietary information being shared, so Naomi’s long-standing relationship with Michael has the feel of a secret affair even though their feelings for each other are casual at best. When Samantha asks Naomi about her sex life, the banker replies, “I get what I need.”
Samantha—who’s raising two children with another woman—comes from the same generation as Naomi, and she has no problem with using her beauty to her advantage. In one of the funnier scenes she throws herself at a nerdy hedge-fund manager (Nate Corddry) during a cocktail hour, gets him completely smashed, and teases him into revealing some insider information he used to score a deal. When he phones her back later, screaming that he was tricked, she laughs it off and hangs up on him. In a way Samantha does the same thing with Naomi, trading on her personal charisma to get something out of her. Late in the movie, when Naomi visits Samantha at home, she’s left alone momentarily with the two kids, and the boy informs her, “I don’t talk to strangers.” Naomi replies, “It’s really your friends that will stab you in the back.” By that time the relationship between the women has become little more than a transaction.
Contrary to what Naomi might think, Erin refuses to accept the sexual paradigm that the other two women have lived with for two decades. Ed most definitely hopes to get Erin into bed, but when he tries to close the deal, she recoils. He responds with a crushing put-down: “If I really want to talk business, I’ll call Naomi.” If this were a man’s movie, the moment when Erin walks out on Ed would be celebrated as a climactic triumph, but in this movie her moral superiority is short-lived: enraged at the insult, she turns up at Michael’s door, claiming that she’s looking for Naomi, and allows herself to be invited inside for a glass of wine when Michael senses an unexpected opportunity to get laid. While they’re chatting over wine in his living room, Erin takes a call from Naomi and puts her on speakerphone so that Michael can eavesdrop on their conversation.
When Hillary Clinton, during a Democratic primary debate, was asked why she took $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, she replied, “That’s what they offered.” Equity espouses a similar philosophy: early in the movie, when Naomi sits on a panel discussion for young professional women, she warms the crowd with her declaration “Don’t let money be a dirty word. We can like that too.” But if the women from Goldman and other big banks who invested in Equity thought they were commissioning a love letter to themselves, they may want their money back. By the end of the movie Naomi’s words have been turned on their head, spoken by another woman whose integrity has just been bought and paid for. Equity imagines a world in which women call the shots in business, and finds that world as craven as the one we inhabit now. v