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Non-Review Review: The Game

The Game is perhaps something of a black sheep on David Fincher’s filmography. It wasn’t quite an early work like Alien 3, but it falls between two of his larger and better received works, Se7en and Fight Club. While it contains the same thematic depth which would define Fincher’s work (and continues to), exploring ideas like the nature of social interactions and the hostile world, it isn’t quite as readily accessible as most of his other work. From the outset, it’s almost as though The Game wants you to believe that it is just a set-up, that it’s rigged, that it will have a ridiculous and illogical conclusion, which makes it a difficult movie for the audience to engage with or trust. The Game hinges on the audience (and the central character) being unable to distinguish between the set-up and reality – effectively letting the audience know that they are going to be toyed with, and potentially alienating them. Which is a shame, because it’s a cleverly constructed little film which would be a lot more charming if it didn’t spend so much of its time informing you of how smart it is.

Quit clowning around...

The pitch is fairly straightforward. Nicholas Van Orton is the man who has everything. He’s a successful millionaire who has isolated himself from his friends and family, while being very good at what he does. He’s played by Michael Douglas, which should really tell you everything you need to know, as he’s a variation on the archetype that Douglas has been playing since Wall Street (right down to playing squash). He eats breakfast standing up. For his birthday, usually a very solemn affair, his wayword brother Conrad has got him a gift. He has got Nicholas “the game”.

What is the game? a sensible viewer might ask, and Nicholas isn’t far behind. He’s never explicitly told what it is, only that he really should take up the invitation his brother extended and that it will offer a life-changing experience. He’s ominously warned that he won’t know where or when, but – one day – his “game” will begin. Suddenly strange things start happening and Nicholas’ world begins to twist and turn. He begins to wonder if this experience might just be a bit more sinister than it originally seemed.

The Game is based on a real-life event. Of course, it’s not nearly as intrusive as it’s portrayed on screen, nor is it quite so dangerous or orientated towards a particular individual. It is basically a glorified treasure hunt with teams in the San Francisco area (although its scope certainly rivals that portrayed in the movie – with contestants scaling buildings and climbing down mines). Of course, this is a movie, so the stakes get dramatically increased. It’s fun to watch the movie and consider the insurance costs on a thing like this (though, in real life, there have been some fairly serious injuries received).

However, it becomes quite clear early on that Fincher isn’t really too interested in some sort of crazy treasure hunt or some sort of giant sinister conspiracy. The movie twists and turns like a snake, and thinking too hard about the film after the ending might seriously undermine the charm. The idea of “the game” as it’s presented in the film doesn’t hold together particularly well as a logical or realistic concept. But then, it’s not supposed to.

See, to Fincher, “the game” is life. It’s what Nicholas Van Orton has been avoiding all these years – “You don’t know about society, you don’t have the satisfaction of avoiding it,” he advises an assistant somewhat bitterly. A sales official promises that the experience offers “whatever’s lacking”. When Van Orton encounters two previous subjects by chance, he takes the opportunity to ask, “What is it?” The two men just smile and nod, “The eternal question.” The key point seems to be that his game is his game alone – there are no hard and fast rules to be applied. When he’s provided with an emergency contact number, he’s advised, “Don’t call asking what the object of the game is. Discovering the object of the game is the object of the game.” Pretty much like the meaning of life, isn’t it?

Who is playing whom?

The movie thrives on uncertainty and Fincher mines that vein pretty thoroughly. Is anyone who they say they are? Can anyone be trusted? How can you perceive the difference between what is real and what is staged, or is there any difference to be distinguished? Surely most of what we encounter in life is a stage or a facade – how much of what we see of people is real? Fincher plays with this idea, crafting some wonderful images – such as a house where there are dirty cups in the sink, but the price is still on the lamp (and there’s no water). How much gets lost in the cracks? Who can trust? What happens when somebody recognises you, but you don’t know them? Throughout the film, that uncertainty and vulnerability is apparent, and there’s an uneasy sense that reality itself is in flux as a result of the game. When Van Orton asks for a key to his room, the response from the bell boy is, “Didn’t I give you one last night?” And he might have.

There’s a charming metafictional aspect to the production which does lend it some charm. Van Orton begins to suspect that those around him might all be actors (unsurprisingly, he’s right). In fact, and this is a spoiler, so highlight to read, he recognises the guy who signed him up as an actor in a television commercial and the movie ends with what is essentially a cast party. Fincher is clearly having a great bit of fun with the material, and it gives the movie a clever post-modern edge which helps to differentiate it from the crowd of thrillers about wealthy people having their lives turned upside down.

However, that cleverness is also the film’s primary weakness. The movie’s premise leads the audience to distrust it. We watch from a distance as the events unfold, because the movie has assured us that Van Orton himself won’t be able to tell when the game is afoot. So we pull back in the hope of a more objective vantage point and never really engage or buy in to what is happening. Although we don’t know exactly what the twists are, the film lets us know that they will be coming – so they don’t have quite the impact they would.

The movie is also so meticulously paced that it borders on “slow”. Fincher is able to ratchet up the tension slowly and Douglas is playing a role he’s more than comfortable with, but the movie seems almost sedate at points. Even though the action scenes are highly illogical, they are far too spaced out within the narrative – it doesn’t hurt that Van Orton spends most of the movie as a highly passive protagonist. The Game has to consciously invade his life despite his clear wishes to the contrary, which means that he isn’t going to play along with it either. So we spend most of the most disengaged from a protagonist who is disengaged from the eponymous past time.

That said, the movie is interesting and well put together, but there’s a reason that it sits uncomfortably between arguably the two finest works in Fincher’s filmography (I didn’t like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in case you can’t tell). It’s good and its smart, but it never really succeeds at drawing the audience into the movie – you’re always astutely aware that what you’re being shown isn’t real, even within a fictional construct. There are some clever ideas in here, but they aren’t enough to make the film as compulsive as it should be.

5 Responses

  1. Found your article extremely interesting and I think you drew out Fincher’s main themes really well. Douglas excels at getting uder the skin of characters who appear in what could be called ‘character pieces’. I think the reason that THE GAME can appear slow is that, whilst Fincher is experimenting with questions of life, action scenes and the fun of the chase, he’s also creating a protrait of ‘someone’ and for me, that meant I was completely swept along for the ride. It’s a few years since I watched it now but I remember being as taken with it as I have been with pretty much every Fincher film.

  2. Great post on what I believe to be a truly underrated film. This one is really all about the construct, isn’t it? We don’t really indentify with any characters or themes because we’re too busy – as you rightly point out – “standing back” and trying to pick out when the game is on, and when it’s not.

    It’s sorta been lost in the Fincher shuffle over time, but I’m hoping the Criterion Edition that’s planned for it next year will dust off some interest.

    Oh – and for what it’s worth, I didn’t like BENJAMIN BUTTON at first either, but a second go-round has raised that film’s status in my eyes. Give it another look sometime – especially with Fincher’s commentary playing under it.

    • I second Hatter in it’s underratedness (is that a word?) and think this is my favorite Fincher film. But for a “non-review review, you really went all out:)

      I don’t think it was slow especially because, as you said, Fincher ratchet up the tension. I do have a huge problem with the ending, but I still love this movie immensely. I’ve often wanted to see what the final bill came to at the end.

      This film is a work of art and I love rewatching it and trying to guess who was really in on it and who wasn’t. I sooo want that Criterion Hatter mentioned ( Blu Ray please)…I mean they have the HD-DVD…hey people, port it already would ya?:P

      • I too think this is hugely underrated. Your in-depth analysis is impressive Darren, but I don’t expect anything less coming from you. I enjoy the ‘game’ and the journey the character goes through and I didn’t mind the slow pace as the pay off is worthwhile. Yeah, Van Orton is basically Gordon Gekko, the type of role Douglas can play in his sleep. It’s one of those movies that reveal a bit more every time you watch it… perhaps I should do that again one of these days.

      • You really should. And what better excuse to dust off an old Fincher movie than the release of his new one?

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