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The Game

In 1997 David Fincher’s status as one of the leading auteurs of his generation had yet to be fully established. After the failure of Alien3 and the success of Seven, the ultimate scope and direction of Fincher’s career still seemed like an open question. In that context, The Game feels like a clear attempt on Fincher’s part to stake a claim on a piece of cinematic real estate. While the success of Seven may have been dependent on a variety of factors that might not be replicable, with this movie Fincher was effectively saying that he can do this Hitchcock thing better than anyone, and he can do it on command.

Michael Douglas stars as Nick Van Orton, another in the long line of rich white pricks he’s made a career specialty out of. The film opens with eerie home movie footage showing a young Nick witness his father commit suicide by jumping from the roof of their estate. As we get to know the adult Nick, it becomes clear that he’s been in a bad mood ever since. Van Orton is the Scrooge of this modern Christmas Carol, sneering his way around an empty mansion, his only human contact with servants and employees.

On his forty-eighth birthday, Nick’s estranged younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) shows up unannounced to take him to lunch. Conrad has had a checkered history of prep school expulsions and stints in rehab, but now seems oddly contented. Conrad credits his transformation to a company called CRS (Consumer Recreation Services) and informs Nick that he has bought him one of their packages as a birthday gift. “Why?” Nick asks. “Make your life…fun,” Conrad replies.

Nick goes to CRS and meets with their VP of accounts, Jim Feingold (a brilliantly geeky James Rebhorn). Nick wants more information about what they sell. It’s a game, Feingold tells him.What is the object of the game? Finding the object of the game is the object of the game. Though Nick feigns impatience and skepticism, he chooses to participate anyway. After submitting to a battery of tests, Nick is informed that his game will begin as soon as he leaves. From then on, neither we nor Nick know who is who, what is what, or why any of it is happening.

Nick descends into a nightmare San Francisco at night. People are following him, or maybe not. The front desk clerk at a hotel is looking at him funny, or maybe not. Anyone he sees or meets could be in on the game. His briefcase won’t open. His pen leaks. A waitress spills wine on him. The coincidences and odd occurrences slowly mount along with Nick’s paranoia. What begins as a series of pranks starts to seem more sinister. As Nick becomes more desperate and the stakes become greater, we are drawn in not out of concern for him but because we share in his confusion. What is the game, who are CRS, and what do they want?

Though widely considered a lesser work in Fincher’s filmography, many of the hallmarks that would come to define his style can be seen here. The film is dark in a very literal sense, the shadows often revealing more than the light. The camera rarely moves, and when it does it moves slowly. The protagonist is an isolated and troubled male, one of Hitchcock’s “ordinary men caught in extraordinary circumstances.” The urban landscape is cold and claustrophobic in its vast emptiness.

The film relies as much on Douglas’ performance as on Fincher’s stylistic flourishes, and he carries it off well. There is a delicate balancing act in playing this character. We have to be repulsed by him just enough that we want to see him humbled, but not so much that we want to turn away from him. Douglas strikes the right note by playing Nick as a man silently suffering through his self-imposed isolation. When we see him eating his Birthday dinner, a homemade cheeseburger, as he watches the financial news  we pity him as much as we dislike him. The only character Douglas shows any feeling beyond contempt for (prior to his life unraveling at any rate) is Conrad, and their relationship, along with Nick’s unresolved feelings regarding his father’s suicide, forms the emotional crux of the film. If Nick is Scrooge, Conrad is Bob Cratchit.

I remember seeing this film in the theaters when I was a kid. I remember liking the style of it, the intensity of the twisty ride, the frequency of the reversals. There was a kinetic excitement to watching Douglas flail from setup to setup, caught in the same whirlwind of doubt and fear that swallowed up Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. But when the ending hit, I was a little deflated. It seemed to come so quick, and invalidate so much of what had come before. I still don’t love the ending, though I acknowledge I don’t really have a better idea. With a puzzle this elaborate, the solution was always going to be less compelling than the mystery. But this still stands as an under appreciated gem, the first time Fincher really pulled off the synthesis that would define his best work: a world built by Hitchcock’s pathos, seen through Kubrick’s lens.

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