The game had a lot to do. it was the movie David Fincher chose as a sequel to the highly acclaimed Sevena film that had propelled the young director into the limelight and prevented his career from coming to a premature end after the mixed reaction to his debut, Alien 3. Suddenly he was no longer the man who had killed the little girl we had spent all aliens trying to save. Instead, he was a fully realized auteur ready to carve his place in the annals of cinema, and all eyes were on him to see what he would do next. He came back with The gamea Hitchcockian thriller for the modern age that toned down its predecessor’s controversial subject matter to focus on a simpler genre image – a decision that raised a few eyebrows.
The film centers on Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a wealthy investment banker who has everything but the one thing money can’t buy: happiness. For his 48th birthday, his ex-brother Conrad (Sean Penn) gives him a voucher for a mysterious game operated by the equally mysterious Consumer Recreation Services. Nicholas initially rejects the gift, but curiosity gets the better of him and he agrees to participate. However, it’s not long before reality and the game become one and the same, and Nicholas finds himself caught in a web of conspiracy that tightens as he tries to escape. It’s a classic thriller and would make a perfect nighttime viewing for someone looking to escape into the fantasy world of movies. It’s the kind of thing Alfred Hitchcock excelled at, and although it’s an oversimplification to say that’s all the film has to offer – touches from the psychological thriller era Brian DePalma are scattered throughout, alongside the occasional moment of surrealism that feels closer to what Charlie Kaufman would later popularize – it’s undeniably a more crowd-pleasing experience than Fincher’s earlier work.
Perhaps that reason contributed to his muted reaction. Reviews were positive but far from rave, and its lackluster box office performance saw it overlooked by all major award shows. Fincher himself considers it one of his weakest filmsand in retrospect, it was an odd choice to base a second feature around (Fincher likes to pretend Alien 3 never happened). Anyone else would have taken their newfound influence and done something more ambitious that would have left no doubt about their filmmaking skills, but instead made a mundane thriller that any accomplished director could produce in a weekend. If anything, fight club feels closer to a true tracking of Sevenwith The game acting as a two-hour pit stop while Fincher hones his methods of directing. But Fincher has always excelled at taking these kinds of stories and elevating them with some of the greatest accomplishments of their time, and The game is no different. Even in his early years, his understanding of the language of cinema is unmatched, but above all, he never draws attention to his own genius. What could have been an enjoyable but forgettable thriller is enhanced by his presence, something he would later repeat in movies like panic room and missing girl.
But if there is one thing The game does better than anything else in his filmography, it’s the atmosphere. The face of San Francisco that Nicholas Van Orton finds himself trapped in is a wonderfully Pynchon-esque creation, and when combined with the labyrinthine nature of the story, it becomes The game in the perfect cinematic representation of a nightmare. But as with all good nightmares, things start off slow. A pen leaks on him before he has to catch a flight, and soon after, his briefcase refuses to open during a business meeting. Gradually, however, these harmless pranks take a more sinister turn, and soon he flees the armed commandos and finds that all of his bank accounts have been emptied. He begins to suspect that everyone he meets – from a random homeless man on the street to even his own brother – is in on the sick game that CRS is orchestrating, and it effectively becomes a running joke that whenever he’s about to find out the truth, he turns out to be just another layer of this twisted charade. If you stop thinking about the individual pieces, they fall apart (how is CRS able to run something of this magnitude without anything going wrong?), but nightmares don’t make logical sense either. , and when you’re trapped in the middle of one you don’t worry about such things. Nicholas isn’t concerned with the reason to lock someone in a cab and drive them around the San Francisco Bay Area, and neither are you if you were in his situation. Douglas perfectly conveys Nicholas’ paranoia and manages to turn a snobbish businessman into a sympathetic character.
The central mystery of The game discovers exactly what “the game” is on earth, with all that Nicholas is able to muster, which only raises more questions (“where once I was blind, now I can see” an ancient player describes it as in a disturbing conversation). Pretty much the only thing we know about the game is that each round is tailor-made for each specific player. In this regard, Nicholas’ ordeal is one of his own creations. His only desire is to make money and satisfy his ego, and the moment one of them appears threatened, his whole being shatters like glass. When he fails to deliver his business partner Anson Baer (Armin Muller-Stahl) his severance package because his briefcase won’t open, it feels like this is the first time Nicholas’ reputation has been in question. No wonder then that we immediately cut Nicholas trying to destroy said briefcase by smashing it against a bench. Some time later, we learn that $600 million has been deducted from his accounts. It’s not like he’s going to use it for anything other than supporting his own vanity, but he’s still mortified. His worst nightmare has come true and he looks completely defeated as he stares at the wreckage.
Games the pacing is among the best of its kind. The screenwriting duo of John Brancato and Michael Ferris (with some uncredited revisions by Seven writer Andrew Kevin Walker) avoid playing their best cards too soon and keep the plot twists going with clockwork regularity. The dialogue is also excellent, with plenty of sarcastic lines befitting a world of such cruelty (“Does Rose Kennedy have a black dress?” Nicholas retorts when asked if he had a happy birthday ). One of their smartest additions is Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), a waitress who unwittingly finds herself caught up in Nicholas’ game…or so he’s supposed to think. Then he visits his house and finds that all of his furniture still has its price tag on and none of the faucets in the kitchen are working. Sure enough, the only person he thought he could trust had worked with CRS all along, and even his claims of being a traitor were later revealed to be just another ruse. Her fluctuating role between ally and villain is a clear reimagining of the femme fatale archetype, but Unger eschews the old clichés and turns Christine into a much more compelling (though still alluring) character.
But an impressive script is nothing without someone who can tell it, and Fincher’s direction becomes an essential part of this terrifying odyssey. The visuals are simple but never thoughtless, favoring clean compositions that always keep Nicholas front and center. Soft colors and minimal use of lighting cast a dark look that fits this world like a glove. It’s no surprise that most of the film takes place at night, when even the most welcoming places take on a sinister twist, and of course, the comforts he once found in boardrooms or his mansion. million-dollar house (the biggest house on the street, as he so proudly proclaims at one point) is just one more thing CRS takes from him. The production design is also worth noting, with large, over-soaked locations dominating the first act before giving way to litter-filled alleyways and dust-filled graveyards as we move further down the burrow. of the rabbit, each evoking Nicholas’ loss of control. After.
Choosing to open the film with a home video of a young Nicholas’ birthday is also a great choice. There’s something unsettling about watching such a joyous occasion via images so degraded it looks like a silent horror movie. This disconnect between what we see and how we see it sets the tone for The game Perfectly. Amidst the erosion, we glimpse Nicholas’s father, a man who seems to put pleasure in the same category as disease. Shortly after, we learn that he committed suicide and it is clear that his death left a serious impact on Nicholas. He may put up the facade of normality, but deep down, Nicholas is a deeply troubled man who spends every waking moment battling his own personal nightmare – so it’s no coincidence, when CRS uses him as the first thing to torment him with by leaving a life-sized wooden clown in front of his house (in the same place where his father’s body was found). Young Nicholas’ cut to his adult counterpart is haunting, and not just because he now looks like his late father. He passed away at the age of 48 and today is Nicholas’ 48th birthday. Quite a coincidence indeed.
But Fincher’s greatest trick is dragging you so firmly into Nicholas’s nightmare that you’ll refuse to believe it’s over even when it really is. The truth will likely raise a few eyebrows when it’s finally revealed, but curious viewers will instead be sitting idly by, refusing to fall for another fake. Except this time it’s not coming – or so we’re told. The stories don’t just end when the credits start rolling and given the resources CRS has, who knows where Nicholas’ life will take him after he leaves his late-night party. He seems remarkably passive during this time, seeming to accept his fate rather than fight it. He may have become the best person Conrad wanted him to be, but who knows if that’s really the end.
The game is the ultimate sleight of hand, sneaking into your mind with such ease you don’t even realize it’s doing it. It’s a film that rewards multiple showings (notice how many background actors reappear throughout the run) and serves as a great showcase of Fincher’s mastery of genre imagery. But above all else, it’s still one of the scariest movies that doesn’t fit the standard definition of a horror movie. The concept of your worst nightmare coming to life (backed by a corporation that might as well be the most powerful in the world) is a terrifying thing and lends itself to endless possibilities. Consider what yours would be – now that’s a scary thought.