David Fincher: The Game (1997) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

David Fincher: The Game (1997)

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Ryan:  If I were to make a list of the most underrated films of the last 20 years, The Game would be near the top of the list.  Unlike Panic Room where Fincher is having fun with all of the toys at his disposal, The Game has a bit more substance behind it.  True, it might be a stretch to believe CRS would have the resources to take over Nicholas Van Orton's (Michael Douglas) life as completely as they do, but the film is so well done you just go with it for the duration.

We haven't talked about the performance yet in these films, and that is something we need to correct.  One of Fincher's unheralded strengths is the ability to get rich performances from his performers.  From Sigorney Weaver's "got nothin' to lose" portrayal of Ripley to Jesse Eisenberg's Oscar-nominated role in The Social Network, there are strong performances in all of his films.

The Game is no different.  Michael Douglas is at his best as a smarmy asshole (something he does better than anyone else) that quickly loses his tight grip over the control he has on his life.  As I've mentioned previously, many characters in these films are in nightmare scenarios they don't know how to get out of and this is very true of Van ORton.  Douglas starts as a well-groomed cold and calculating man but ends in a bug-eyed and dirty state of paranoia.  The fact that he can play both sides of his character's personality equally well is a testament to his performance.

Another theme common in Fincher's film is the bleak ending where a character either successfully or unsuccessfully commits suicide.  Although Van Orton does try to do himself in, which they foreshadow beautifully from the beginning, the end is one of the more cheery ones to his films.  The movie starts by showing Van Orton's dad as a lonely, depressed man and goes to great lengths to show our protagonist is on the same bleak track.  By the end of the film Van Orton has jumped (no pun intended) off that track and is finally able to be his own man without the shadow of his dad looming over him.  I know that one of the big complaints on the film is that the movie wraps up everything too neatly but I never felt like the movie pulled the rug out from under me.  I think my swift fall was just as earned as Van Orton's.

Andrew COMMENTARYAndrew:  That's the funny thing about the ending to The Game as opposed to another "gotcha" film like The Usual Suspects.  I know you enjoy the film Ryan, so I'll be brief, but TUS locks us into the perspective of one character who we know is a compulsive liar so it comes as no huge surprise when the big twist at the end is revealed.  We've been twisted around so many times it barely matters when the credits roll.  By comparison, Fincher manages the difficult task of making Van Orton as clueless as the rest of us so we're rushing to figure out what's going on right along with him.  It's less a case of the emperor having no clothes and more of a consecutive tightening of the screws.

The tightening which, I'd like to note, makes this feel like a far more focused picture than Seven.  That film is considerably more ambitious, I'll give it that and much more, but The Game benefits from being, more or less, a genre picture.  It does continue on with Fincher's themes of power and helplessness but stands as an amazingly crafted bit of entertainment.

You're right to point out Douglas' performance since he's in every scene of the movie and sells the acidic dialogue with an edge that would make Richard Burton proud.  He displays this early on in a scene with his brother, played with a nervous energy by Sean Penn that he hasn't quite matched since, who he love dearly but when his little brother explains the game with great vagueness Van Orton can only respond with "I think he's in one of those personal improvement cults or something."  On a similar note with his ex-wife, who he still holds some fondness for but is clearly not a fan of her new beau, he describes her romantic life past him as "...[she] married a pediatrician, or a gynecologist, or a pediatric gynecologist."

Beyond the script, I love the wicked edge and dark humor in this film.  The vagueness of the game means that when the members of CRS show up in stormtrooper outfits to fire on Van Orton I reply "Of course," because it was about time someone got shot at.  Back to another trope, Fincher loves to poke fun at the upper class and you get a great sense of Van Orton's singleminded obsession with his financial stability versus his physical well-being (when his house is broken into Van Orton makes sure the police know it's the largest one on the block).

Less successful, again, are his female characters, but I don't know how much I can really discuss with this film while still keeping the main point of the story in mind.  By that I mean the only person he really listens to once the game is going in full swing is  Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) who is basically written as a female version of Van Orton (she's even into women!)  It's played off in a way which makes me think Fincher was turning a weakness into a strength, but I'm skeptical given evidence from previous films and one potent example on the way.

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What potent example might this be?  Prepare to be astounded by what is sure to be a spirited (and shirtless) exchange of words over Fight Club!

Posted by Andrew

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