The Game: The Brilliance of David Fincher’s First Criterion Title
Sandwiched between Fincher's breakout Se7en and his cult classic Fight Club, this overlooked thriller is quite possibly the best of the three.
In 1995, David Fincher made his mark on Hollywood with the brutal, mesmerising serial-killer film Se7en. The movie changed the way we now see serial killers, and is unmistakably a terrific picture. Two years later, sandwiched in between Fincher’s breakout Se7en and his cult classic Fight Club, is a smaller and sometimes overlooked thriller that is quite possibly the best of the three.
It was met with solid critical praise, but came and went in a September release, grossing just over $60 million. Despite its mediocre theatrical run, more and more people are remembering The Game and finding a new appreciation for the pure audacity of Fincher’s vision. This new-found appreciation is evident in the new release of the film on Criterion DVD, fincher’s first in the series. To me, this speaks volumes as to the staying power of The Game and why it is my personal favorite of his work.
Michael Douglas is Fincher’s puppet, Nicholas Van Orton, a billionaire trapped in the expansive mansion of his childhood. His father killed himself at this very house. Now middle-aged and alone, Nicholas spends his days hiding inside his mansion, speaking only to the family maid. But on his birthday Nicholas meets his estranged brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), for lunch and Conrad gives him a present. “It’s a game,” he says, a pass to a recreational type of real-life adventure company.
Each game is tailored to the participant, and after a solid day of mental and physical testing, Nicholas waits on a call. The company calls him and tells him he did not qualify for the game; only strange things begin happening.
An ink pen bursts; Nicholas cannot get his suitcase unlocked at a crucial business meeting for the company; a waitress (Deborah Kara Unger) spills a drink on him more than once; things escalate until it appears the company is intent on killing him and wiping out his bank accounts. At every turn, the insanity of the plot builds. What is real? What is the game? Conrad reappears, frightened and desperate and paranoid.
Nicholas and Christine, the waitress, spend the majority of the film trying to figure out who and why these people are intent on their death. Then the structure of the film unfolds, doubles back, and reveals itself to be an increasingly detailed and labyrinthine plot. Nicholas is thrust through the events of the film like a puppet, with no real control over the trajectory of his life.
What takes The Game to the next level is the willingness to go over the top with the events as Nicholas is acted upon repeatedly. The ability for some of these things are unrealistic in the very practical world surrounding Fincher’s central story, but the stretch in realism spices up the third act as the audience is squeezed into a knot of tension. The reveal in the end – not spoiling anything – is such a bold and broad stroke by Fincher and screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris. The audacity, as I keep returning to that word, of the Game keeps it fresh and vibrant every time I see it.
The Game is also an elegant and sleek thriller. The entire thing, accentuated mainly by a quiet piano note throughout, rolls along the crazy plot structure thanks to Fincher’s penchant for calm blues and browns. It is a wonderful juxtaposition and it seems to intensify the thrills. The re-watchability of The Game may be what puts it on top for me as far as Fincher’s work. But the intricate design of the film has evolved more for me over the years than some of his other work. But this isn’t really about comparing The Game with Fincher’s other work. It is about acknowledging its resurgence, and its greatness, much like the folks at Criterion managed to do.
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