Investment banker Nicholas Van Orton has come to Christine’s home for answers. His entire life is coming apart at the seams, ever since he signed up for a life-altering game courtesy of the mysterious Consume Recreation Services. He thinks Christine, a waitress he met seemingly by accident, might know something. With endless resources and a borderline ludicrous number of extra players, CRS has made Nicholas untrusting of nearly everything and everyone. Once inside Christine’s home, Nicholas slowly begins to realize the apartment is not really an apartment at all, but a set. The lamp still has a thrift store tag on it; the books on the shelves are false fronts; the water line isn’t hooked up. It’s all been staged for his benefit.
On the commentary track for the Criterion Collection release, director David Fincher reveals that when reading the script, this exact moment is what sold him on making the film. “That’s when I said, ‘I gotta see this, I gotta make this movie.’”
Films have conditioned some of us to see life as one long, unfolding narrative in which we are the star and everyone around us is either a supporting player or some extra in a dialogue-free walk-on role. For Nicholas, “The Game” turns this psychological construct into a reality where he’s forced to act in a film. Unfortunately for him, the film he’s stuck in is a David Fincher film, full of ominous shadows and cold cosmic injustice.
“The Game,” which turns 20 this month, was the third film from obsessive filmmaker Fincher. Fincher made his feature debut with “Alien 3.” It didn’t go well. The film, bathed in sickly yellow and at times overly nihilistic, turned off audiences, but the problems arose long before that, when studio executives got in the way of the production. “[T]he current wisdom is, of course, that I make things exponentially more complicated but they just are,” Fincher would later share with Mossfilm. “I probably should have walked away from the first week of shooting when there wasn’t a script but there are extenuating circumstances ... They were 15 million dollars into just the production. To walk away from something like that, in this town at least, at that point is more detrimental to your career than to plow on with something you think needs a lot more work.”
“We failed to give people the broad, safe entertainment that, in the United States at least, they seem to want,” Fincher also said. But if Fincher really thought the lesson from “Alien 3” was to move on to broad, safe entertainment, he didn’t take it to heart. He followed “Alien 3” with the gloomy serial killer thriller “Seven,” which garnered critical praise and reigned supreme at the box office.
“Seven” announced Fincher as a major filmmaker, but it was with “The Game” that the director truly came into his own. This was the first “David Fincher film”—the first film he had clout on, the first film through which he could exercise his own cold, obsessive preoccupations. The result is a moody, darkly funny nightmare that unfolds like a Hitchcockian single-player puzzle-based video game.
While later Fincher films tend more frequently to receive the “masterpiece” designation (and even Fincher himself has declared an unhappiness with “The Game,” speaking in an interview with Indiewire, “We didn’t figure out the third act, and it was my fault, because I thought if you could just keep your foot on the throttle it would be liberating and funny”), “The Game” is perhaps his most exciting film, and perhaps the only one he’s made so far where there’s still some hope for the unspooling figure at its center. That hope is hard to gleam through all that imposing darkness, but it’s there.
As a filmmaker, Fincher thrives on obsession. His penchant for shooting exorbitant numbers of takes for scenes has become the stuff of cinephile suburban legend. “He does a lot of takes,” Tyler Perry, who worked with Fincher on “Gone Girl,” said to Flavorwire. “But what I realized very early on is that he is seeing everything at once. I don’t think he sees like regular humans. I think he sees everything at once and he’s trying to paint this perfect tableau, and if one thing is out of place, it’s gotta be redone.” Fincher’s films are carried by obsessively driven individuals, unconcerned with the collateral damage they leave in their wakes. Here, that obsession is essential to what makes “The Game” tick. Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides scrupulously frame with suspicion every single person Nicholas crosses path with. Is someone part of the game, or just an oblivious person going about his own life, starring in his own personal film? It’s like a murder mystery where no one has actually been murdered yet, but everyone's a suspect. As his paranoia mounts, it becomes almost impossible to trust anyone.
The chilly, meticulously rendered early frames of “The Game” set up the frosty, empty life of of Nicholas Van Orton on the cusp of his 48th birthday: his enormous, secluded, gated mansion, complete with live-in servant; his luxury car; his fine clothes. He has it all. And yet he has very little. That huge home is cavernous and empty. He plays racquetball alone. He exudes an icy detachment, incapable of relating to anyone who happens to venture into his orbit. A secretary awkwardly wishes him a happy birthday. After she leaves the room, he mutters to his assistant, “I don’t like her.”
Then Nicholas’ brother Conrad presents him with a most unusual birthday present, and the rest of the film is devoted to literally destroying the world as Nicholas knows it.
Like Fincher, Nicholas thrives on control. Everything needs to be in its right place, or the center cannot hold. Nicholas’ wealth enables him to maintain that control; he makes his own rules, sets his own schedules. His ex-wife, who we can tell from a few brief words still cares about Nicholas, calls to wish him a happy birthday. He treats the call as a mild inconvenience, a fly to be swatted away. After setting up the control Nicholas holds over his world, “The Game” then sets about robbing him of it.
Bit by bit, Nicholas’ life comes apart, courtesy of the game CRS puts him through. At first, the game seems to consist of little more than extremely elaborate, incredibly well-organized flash mob antics that involve large numbers of extras staging scenarios for Nicholas’ benefit, and then things get wilder. It gets to the point where it seems as if everyone in Nicholas’ home town of San Francisco is in on the game. Maybe they are.
Fincher and writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris make “The Game” so compelling by keeping both Nicholas and the audience close to figuring out just what is going on, only to pull the rug out at the last minute and reveal that it was a trick. At one point, an ominous cab driver hurtles his taxi towards the bay with Nicholas in the back seat. “I am a very wealthy man!” Nicholas pleads, thinking he can buy his way out of his increasingly dangerous game. The cab driver just laughs. Yet later, Nicholas finds his bank accounts completely depleted. He’s a very wealthy man, after all—he’s spent the whole movie reminding us of this. Of course, this was all an elaborate con game to steal his money. Except, what if it isn’t?
Michael Douglas, an actor who excels at playing WASPy arrogance, is a treat to watch here. His cold indifference slowly gives way to disbelief giving way to mania. Very few actors can deliver a line like “There goes a thousand dollars” after losing a shoe and make it sound both believable and laugh-out-loud funny. Humor runs all through “The Game”—a dark, macabre humor, where we can’t help but laugh at how elaborate and absurd Nicholas’ game has become, even as it gets more and more dangerous.
By “The Game”’s conclusion, Nicholas has been completely broken. His money is gone, his life is in shambles. At one point, he’s drugged, only to later wake up entombed alive in a crypt in Mexico. He has to essentially rise from the grave and crawl back to his old, destroyed life, ready for revenge or answers, whichever comes first. In the film’s most brilliant moment, Nicholas storms the offices of CRS, where he wanders into a large lunch room and finds almost every single person he’s come in contact with through his game milling about—waiting to be called to the set, so to speak. Fincher sweeps through the room and even people who seemed completely inconsequential to the narrative are there—actors, every last one of them.
“The Game” culminates when Fincher, who has been controlling this game all along as if he were a character just off screen, pulls one last cruel trick on the audience. Nicholas, distraught over it all, accidentally shoots and kills Conrad, who’s been lying in wait at CRS to tell his brother that this really was all a game and nothing that happened was real. Nicholas has had enough, and like his father before him, he chooses to take his own life. He steps to the edge of the roof of the towering office building that houses CRS and falls. By now, audiences who had seen “Seven” might have fully expected Fincher to end things here on a hopelessly bleak note and let Nicholas fall to his death.
This isn’t that movie. While Fincher as a filmmaker gravitates towards darkness, “The Game” is his most upbeat film. Here, there’s some sort of light ready to break through all that darkness. Most of Fincher’s movies end on either a down note or with some sort of chaos prevailing after all—the buildings still come tumbling down in “Fight Club”; the killer may have been identified, but still ultimately gets away with his crimes in “Zodiac”; Lisbeth thought she found a kindred spirit with Blomkvist in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but she was mistaken; and so on. The darkness wins out. But not in "The Game." There’s a giant stuntman airbag waiting for Nicholas below, waiting to save his life. Like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, he’s brushed up against death and come out the other side a changed, and better, man. Silly as this scenario may be, there’s something comforting in this. There’s still hope for Nicholas Van Orton.To order your copy of David Fincher's "The Game" on DVD or Blu-ray, click here.