The Game is a mind-bending metaphor for the bizarre and dirty side of American life where everything’s coincidence and everything’s destiny. A Titanic-sized ship couldn’t house the newspaper clippings about the corruption through bad business practices that have come to light since The Game was released in 1997. As a result, the macabre torture suffered by Michael Douglas’ billionaire investment banker plays like a society exacting revenge for years of unwittingly handing themselves over to moneymakers. The film, directed by a young David Fincher, appeared amidst a fruitful time for inventive narratives in Hollywood. However, the challenging, unrelenting story was received with tepid reviews. If not for the recent success of its maker, The Game may well have faded into obscurity, buried beneath more critically-accepted, similar films from the time.
Inspired by a random meeting with his estranged brother, a ruthless businessman named Nicholas Van Orton puts his need for control on hold and joins an “adventure” known as “The Game.” An ensuing slew of violent occurrences, some seeming planned and some seeming coincidental, spin Nicholas down a warped path that narrowly takes his life. Forced to momentarily make decisions based on primitive survival, even having to beg strangers for money, Nicholas plots to get at the core of the organization tormenting him. Once inside, he finds out that everything, including his ability to figure them out, was always just a part of “The Game.”
Contrary to what the title suggests, The Game hinges on a downward spiral of harassment as opposed to any semblance of participatory adventure. Nicholas has a void deep inside his life that causes him to give himself over to something unknown. Quickly, though, he realizes this isn’t quite what he signed up for, yet he’s too far in it to get out. A metaphor for the control that our minds have over our souls and, on a grander scale, the control that corporations have on American life, The Game reflects a problem of consumerist takeover and anti-intellectualism that has only increased in the past decade. The mid-to-late-90s spawned a number of films that played on narrative conventions and formal logic as a way of exposing societal psychology. For instance, Christopher Nolan’s Following and Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich spin modernist storytelling concepts on age-old suspense tropes to reflect commentary on the real world. The Game’s a striking, most difficult entry into the canon of young directors twisting expectations on the audience. It’s at once cold, confrontational, smug, frustrating, and not the least bit playful.
While we can foretell the conclusion of comeuppance to our protagonist, he remains unlikeable throughout. By the end, he’s bull-headed his way into the hands of his seeming harassers without having for a second stopped to think if this all may be a measure to get him to change his ways. In another (albeit lesser) film, Nicholas may have had a long-winded speech about the horrible man he one time was. Instead, Fincher allows little time for any of his characters to wax philosophical about their feelings. The original ending of the film seemed to suggest a self-discovery within Nicholas, though the one chosen for the finished product alludes to only a mild transformation. Now knowing Fincher’s weary view of the world, one must assume that anything more grounded in movie sentimentality would have been unacceptable.
Speaking of Fincher, what’s striking about The Game is how it speaks to the director’s ability to elevate a script without being able to work out some of its flaws. For a long time I’ve thought Fincher must be kept out of being considered a saint-amongst-directors since his visionary touch is predicated entirely on the strength of the scripts he chooses. A man of immensely good taste, he tends to choose pretty good ones. Yet, to say Fincher displays a personal style would be to speak more to his precise visual design than any truly creative formal or philosophical concepts. That said, allusions to Kubrick’s fractured psychosis in The Shining abound in The Game. Giving credence to a young man still attempting to find his bearings as an artist, reflexively riffing on the influences he admires.
The recent passing of Harris Savides will increase interest in those unfamiliar with his cinematography. Watching The Game again, I was struck by Savides’ use of courageous deep black, bluish hues, and shadows that obscure almost entire images. Clearly influenced by Caravaggio’s dim-lighting, entire scenes in The Game play out behind darkness, with only small portions of the images illuminated. The beautiful city of San Francisco, when churned by the minds of Savides and Fincher, turns into a wasteland of hidden alleyways, dirty walls, and slimy crevices. Douglas looks like a man perpetually entrenched in the muck of privileged life, often sliced in half by a reflection, foreground element, or silhouette that hangs over his handsome mug.
A visual feast by a future master, The Game may only still see the light of day because of its pedigree. But, in many ways, The Game speaks more to its filmmaker’s personal tastes and obsessions than any of his early work. The Game, like Panic Room and Alien 3, represents Fincher “trying things.” Unfortunately, the results in these endeavors have garnered mixed returns. Unlike his more buttoned-up successes, The Game moves along a challenging narrative line that, viewed in light of recent events in the world, may actually render more interesting observations than its given credit.