Star Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
David Fincher is an incredible director, and easily fills the second spot on my top five favorite directors. Fincher is a director that has immense control over the look and feel of every project he works on. After the success of his film Se7en, Fincher was able to tackle The Game, a film starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. A fun thriller that takes you through an onslaught of twists and turns, that concludes with an ending that leaves you speechless. The Game is easily Fischer’s most underrated film, and deserve significantly more recognition that it has received. This is a film that should be watched with as little information as possible, and if you enjoy a good surprise, I highly recommend you stop reading and go watch the film first.
What do you get for the man who has everything? Answer: Consumer Recreation Services. Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, an investment banker who appears to have everything he could possibly want. He’s a powerful, intimidating man who lives a cold, calloused life alone, surrounded by his money. Sean Penn plays his brother Conrad who finally has his life on track after battling drug addiction. For Nicholas’s birthday, Conrad buys him a package from Consumer Recreation Services, a company that specializes in creating games that are tailored to the individual. Intrigued, Nicholas accepts the invitation, and after wasting a day taking psychological and physical exams, his game begins. Once the game starts for Nicholas, the film is just one incredible moment after another. While not an action heavy film, it does manage to keep the pace moving as Nicholas starts to wonder whether he’s actually playing a game or whether the entire “game” is an elaborate scheme to con him out of his money.
Michael Douglas and Sean Penn are both fantastic actors, and The Game only serves as evidence of that. Michael Douglas was born to play Nicholas Van Orton. His calloused, stone faced demeanor melts away as the film progresses and his character is humbled. Sean Penn is only in a handful of scenes in the film, but he manages to convey someone who may or may not be unhinged, which adds to the mystery of the events transpiring. Deborah Kara Unger plays Christine, who works with Nicholas as he works to make sense of all of the events happening to him. This film does an excellent job of balancing people and events to build a mystery that Nicholas must figure out.
The entire film plays out almost like an elaborate escape room. What starts with a wooden clown lying in Nicholas’s driveway, leads to the discovery of clues and keys and situations which are beyond Nicholas’s control. The film tries to be equal parts thriller and treasure hunt. The game starts with a key that leads one to believe the game is more of a treasure hunt, which makes sense with how the game is built up in character dialogue. Once the first key is found and Nicholas continues to go about his daily life, the treasure hunt aspect of the game is thrown out of balance with the thriller aspect of the story. This might be one of the few flaws with the film, but with how successfully everything comes together, it’s an easy thing to overlook.
The imbalance between thriller and treasure hunt isn’t the only issue with the film. There is a certain level to which belief should be suspended while watching this film. The believability of the plot relies heavily on whether you think an organization can truly do all of the things they do to Nicholas throughout the film. On the one hand its easy to see an organization like that managing to influence someone’s life to the extent they do, but on the other is difficult to believe an organization can account for so many variables, the biggest one being human free will. There’s a throwaway line at the end that attempts to explain everything, and while I found it satisfactory, there are going to be many who think it’s utter nonsense.
A brilliant aspect of the film is the way it builds up this question, “What is the Game?” This is the question that Nicholas asks that ultimately gets him involved with the game, and as the film ends, the question is never answered. Consumer Recreation Services does attempt to give an answer to the question when Nicholas enters their office toward the beginning part of the film, but the answer is never concrete. It’s an answer carefully crafted to build on Nicholas’s curiosity to get him to sign up. Consumer Recreation Services even gives him the information necessary to stop the game at any point, and somehow he continues to think that everything happening to him is outside of the realms of the game. Even when the film ends, the audience is left wondering what the game was. Did it give Nicholas what he was lacking? Was it a psychological adventure, designed to be a cathartic release? There is really no satisfying answer. It makes you wonder what the game looked like to other participants. The only thing Nicholas can say about the game once it ends is how fulfilling it was. He can join the others in singing the praises about what Consumer Recreation Services has done for him.
David Fincher is a brilliant director. He’s a director known for his distinctive style and themes that he explore and builds on in each of his films. He’s a director that has yet to make a bad film, only some that are more successful as others. The Game might not be as widely known as Se7en, Fight Club, or The Social Network, but the incredible thriller deserves much more attention than it has received. Its a fun film that might require some suspension of belief, has a fun ending that almost parodies similar thrillers that were popular at the time. In typical Fincher fashion, he manages to take a unique story and make it uniquely his. The same script under a different director might not have been as fun or interesting to watch. There’s a reason this film has been accepted into the Criterion Collection prior to any of his other films. It shows complexity, and an expert handling of the art form from a novice director that is almost a metaphor for filmmaking 13 years before Inception and 10 years before The Prestige.