By reissuing David Fincher’s The Game (1997), the Criterion Collection commits an act of outright auteurism. This film sits on the lower Fincher shelf, somewhere near Alien3 and Panic Room. The filmmaker’s come a long way – he now seems unflappable after his reflections on life/mortality in Benjamin Button, his swift media epic The Social Network, and his own touches to the well known Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. From memory, The Game seems like quality late-night cable fare – a treat when discovered but not usually sought out. Style outweighs the content in this suspense film of minimal surprise. Essentially, it’s a feather-light piece of high concept given the heavy treatment.
The Fincher visual palette appears from the start, in the look of the CRS office (Consumer Recreational Services), where Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) finds himself after receiving the service as a gift from his brother (Sean Penn). The headquarters appears gray and cold, unlike the vivid hues of Nicholas’s office. The fruits of wealth appear warm and welcoming, while a threat to it – CRS, we soon learn – goes Fincherian. The glass walls with thin bars show scope but imprisonment. He’s already in a maze far from the open concept of his generous office space. The Game assumes that wealth creates security, and a loss of the latter comes only when the former is taken away. Even if he has a less fortunate backstory – a broken marriage, a mother recently deceased, and a father having committed suicide at Nicholas’s present age – the comforts of the upper class abound on his birthday. In this role, Douglas uses his familiar, intense take on victimization (integral to the blockbuster erotic thrillers of the 80s/90s), the most familiar persona for the actor even if he let it come to mania in Falling Down.
The CRS office turns insidious, as employees put Nicholas through extensive tests, including viewing images for response, similar to Alex DeLarge’s behavioralist deprogramming in A Clockwork Orange. The film is essentially a game by Fincher – a Pandora’s Box he delights toying with, as we await its opening, and soon cringe at its political ramifications. CRS is discussed over the leather seats of an elite club. Implications of a secret society nicely precedes Fincher’s take on the subject in Fight Club, where a group calls for revolution instead of representing what those fighters resist, as in The Game. When Nicholas can experience the elite service of CRS, he’s reached the highest echelon, the inner circle of privilege, and for uber-capitalists, the meaning of life. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut uses such content for satire, as a slow-burning metaphor on guilt-cum-marital transgression. Yet, Fincher seems either oblivious to the political assumptions of his tale (I hope) or – think of Mitt Romney in one of those seats – championing them. Here we have nifty filmic style and crackpot sensibility.
The ways of the rich go sour – to the viewer’s delight, we note – when Nicholas feels his wealth to be beyond his control. When his home proves monitored and his TV newscast altered to formally introduce him to CRS’s game (an idea seemingly borrowed by Neil Gaiman for his 2001 novel American Gods), he experiences a quiet form of home invasion. The quick references of failing small businesses hint at the capitalist’s nightmare, though likely off the radar of an investment banker like Nicholas. When he loses access to his savings and credit, it’s as if the man is destroyed not by lost relations but the loss of wealth and things.
To others in his class, Nick’s life becomes like a show, and it’s no wonder that The Game is bookended by The Truman Show (just after, released in 1998) and Groundhog Day (preceding, in 1993). The former film presents the simple, content life as material for others to fawn over and something only believed to be real by its protagonist. The latter Bill Murray vehicle sees existence as modifiable day by day and idealized into the impossible, even if the film offers up the most precious kind of comedy: irony of situation. Far from a life’s worth of distress coming all at once, as it does for Murray in Scrooged, Groundhog’s date is a performance that the main player can alter away from its nightmarish start. The Game eventually proves to be more like Groundhog in spite of its bonds to Truman.
When Nicholas learns that a restaurant server is in on CRS, the characters pair up for a time. The film aligns to the Classical Hollywood style’s reliance on male-female pairings in all genres, as discussed by David Bordwell. Fincher uses the meeting for screwball comedic moments that sit oddly on the dark, Fincherian canvas. Later, when Nicholas is reborn as a common man – when returning from Mexico (the result of some diverting plot chicanery) – we wonder if Fincher will withdraw his endorsement of the bourgeois by having Nicholas engage in a real fight against the machine making his life hell. But The Game, essentially, asserts the power of the rich – that they can alter their experience and material environment completely for enjoyment. In an honestly nail-biting finish, the film appears to show true guts, and then pulls out a safety net for American viewers who worship a figure like Nicholas. They can’t bear to see him crumble, and hence, Fincher keeps him safe all along.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012).