David Fincher’s ‘The Game’: One Part Fascinating and Two Parts Frustrating

The Game (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]I have always found David Fincher‘s 1997 thriller The Game rather frustrating and now I’ve been given a chance to explore it once again as Criterion has released a brand new Blu-ray edition of the film as it celebrates its 15th anniversary.

Criterion originally brought the film to laserdisc back in 1998, and has now created a brand new transfer for this Blu-ray release as well as delivered two different audio tracks, one the theatrical 5.1 surround mix and the other the near field 5.1 surround mix originally created for in ’97 for the Criterion laserdisc. The audio and video are excellent, and the film certainly remains intriguing but, as I said, I find it continually frustrating.

The Game finds pleasure and thrills in tormenting wealthy investment banker Nicholas Van Orton, a role perfect for Michael Douglas, playing it a bit looser than his Gordon Gekko from 1987, but no less privileged and pedestaled. Nicholas is used to a life of luxury, getting what he wants and walking over anyone in his way. This life is thrown for a loop after his brother (Sean Penn) gifts him an opportunity to take part in a new sort of “game”.

Handing over intimate details about himself, Nicholas invites Consumer Recreation Services (CRS) to test him in a game that would appear to have real life consequences, but the stability and under-the-surface fragility of a man whose upbringing and father’s suicide has made him who he is today, proves to make this game almost too much to handle.

Nicholas is chased through alleyways, shot at and left for dead in a locked cab sinking into the river,. Watching it again I began to feel as if The Game may be Fincher’s most sadistic film, which is truly saying something once you consider the likes of Se7en, Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

It’s relentless in its torment of Van Orton and in most ways it works, transforming the audience from a judgmental peanut gallery to concerned onlookers by the film’s end. Van Orton is the embodiment of what we’ve come to call a “one percenter” in the last couple years. The 99% share no compassion for this type of man and early on he lets us know who he is through his treatment of his secretaries, a lack of humanity in his treatment of business partners and his belief his wealth will get him out of any situation — “I am a very wealthy man, whatever they are paying you I will double it!” Money’s not going to save you this time Niko.

The emphasis at the beginning of the film implies Nicholas Van Orton needs to learn a lesson, and learn he does, but this also gets to the heart of what bothers my about the film.

NOTE: If you have not yet seen the film you may want to stop here. Spoilers will be revealed below.

My problems come at the beginning and end with a general satisfaction for the mystery in the middle.

To begin, from the minute Nicholas receives the CRS gift certificate from his brother I don’t believe he’ll ever use it. I don’t see him as a man whose curiosity is piqued by a mysterious invitation that will change his life. I lose even more confidence in the story when he allows himself to be subjected to physical and psychological tests for the better part of a day only to be satisfied with a parting good bye and a “We’ll be in touch.”

Despite my inability to accept these events, I am able to get over these issues since the film finds several ways to capture the audience’s attention from there on out, but I found it to be a conflict of character from the start and I find a similar problem in the end.

Once Nicholas has been run through the ringer and the game plays out, we watch as he decides the only solution is to commit suicide, same as his father. Jumping off a tall building, crashing through glass onto an inflated air bag that saves him, Nicholas walks away unharmed outside the cuts and bruises suffered over the course of his torment. He has survived the game’s physical test and its psychological effect has made him a new man. This bothers me.

I can’t accept the way this film ends and Nicholas’ acceptance of what he’s just been through. Yes, we see moments of change in Nicholas late in the game, but they come across as contrived story elements rather than a natural progression.

I also refuse to believe a man, that was only a moment ago willing to kill himself, would so quickly be “okay”. Perhaps you’d argue he’s not okay and will now need years of therapy to even achieve some semblance of “okay”, which is fine, but the way the film wraps up I simply don’t get that impression.

Listening to the audio commentary, screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris mention how once Nicholas falls onto the air bag the film, in essence, is over and the rest is just a matter of wrapping it up. If the story ends there, why not end it?

Given the puzzling nature of the narrative, I would have rather seen the film fade to black as Nicholas was helped off the air bag, and before he speaks with his brother (whom he thought he’d just killed up on the roof). His eyes would blur as his brother came into view and soon we fade to black. Then, before the credits, the film picks up again, but only briefly. We see Nicholas with Deborah Kara Unger‘s character at some unknown point in the future. They’re having a romantic dinner together and gazing into one another’s eyes happily. We don’t hear what they’re saying and the scene again fades to black and the credits roll.

This kind of ending serves several purposes, one is to continue the mystery and the question of whether or not Nicholas played the game or if the game is still playing him? Two, just how far into the future does the audience believe we’ve gone? Depending on the answer to the first question you can begin to question whether Nicholas actually got his comeuppance or if he successfully manipulated the game to get the result he wanted.

To me, the ending, as is, is wrapped up too nice and neat and I don’t believe it or accept it based on the story as I understand it. This isn’t to discount the filmmaking, which is outstanding as Fincher shows more control over the camera here than perhaps in any of his other films. The fluidity of its movement, first noticeable as Van Orton pulls up in front of his office, the camera begins tracking him through the door before he even steps out. The way he pushes the camera in on his characters while largely maintaining wide-angle shots, so as to say, “Look, no strings.”

Fincher is a magician in my opinion and I can appreciate so much of The Game as I do the majority of his films. It goes behind his work as a director and involves his cast — Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger and James RebhornHarris Savides‘ stunning cinematography and Howard Shore‘s haunting score, echoing underneath it all.

A lot of talent is is on display throughout this film and owners of this Criterion edition will drool over the appropriate (and coincidental) patchwork commentary that includes Fincher, Savides, Douglas, Brancato, Ferris, digital animation supervisor Richard “Dr.” Baily, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft and visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug.

The disc also contains an hour’s worth of exclusive behind-the-scenes footage and film-to-storyboard comparisons for four of the film’s major set pieces, with commentary, a short alternate ending, the trailer and teaser trailer, with commentary.

To own this Blu-ray for yourself [amazon asin=”B008CJ0JTI” text=”click here”] or if you’d rather have the DVD [amazon asin=”B008CJ0JPC” text=”click here”]. Either way, I think if you’re interested enough to read this far, this is a title you should add to your collection.


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