THE GAME - David Fincher's Puzzle
On the modern road to cinematic passion, it seems one of the first stations every young viewer fills up for gas at is David Fincher. He’s one of those directors that’s a perfect storm for both fledgling cinephiles and seasoned veterans; crisply calculated camera work, a cooly designed color palette, delightfully dark subject matter and his reputation for Kubrickian perfectionism all make the allure of a Fincher film nearly impossible to resist. Fincher also is in the exclusive company of filmmakers working today whose new projects are events. As a result, his limited filmography is among the more towering in recent memory (though he disowns Alien 3, I maintain that the Assembly cut is far from unwatchable and has higher-caliber filmmaking sequences than most modern blockbusters.) But sandwiched between what might be his two most famous works - Seven and Fight Club- is a smaller original movie which finally seems to be getting attention after years of neglect: 1997’s The Game.
What could best be described as A Christmas Carol stripped of any holiday warmth and updated for the modern age, Michael Douglas plays San Francisco investment banker Nicholas Van Orton - whose about as big of a jerk as his name implies. For his birthday, his brother (Sean Penn) gives him a certificate to an organization that puts on a “game” which plays itself out unexpectedly in real life. The less you know the better but needless to say old Van Orton quickly finds himself at the mercy of the unseen, unknowable organization and falls in over his head.
It has all of Fincher’s formal visual hallmarks but in something of a different narrative setting in the sense that, as viewers, the line between reality and fantasy is always up for debate. In many ways, it almost feels like a test run for Fight Club— Fincher playing with an audience’s perception of what’s actually happening vs what we think is happening. Michael Douglas is an inspired casting choice for the main role, functioning almost as a riff on Gordon Gecko in Wall Street. This time, however, he’s being manipulated.The legendary Howard Shore’s score rolls over Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides’ shadowed San Francisco; a location which they’d explore again masterfully in Zodiac.
Starting out as an original screenplay in 1991, The Game was initially bought by MGM who let the rights revert, where it was then picked up by Fincher’s then-company, Propaganda Films. Before Fincher was attached, early iterations had Kyle Maclachlan and Bridget Fonda slated to star but nothing got off the ground. Once Fincher became involved, he collaborated with Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker to tweak the script, with the director citing Mission: Impossible and The Sting as influences. He was planning on making The Game before Seven, however Brad Pitt became attached to the latter project, pushing it into production beforehand. Pitt and Jodie Foster were later considered for roles in The Game.
The critical response at the outset was positive but not overly enthusiastic. The film sits at a 75% approval on Rotten Tomatoes with reviews praising Fincher’s direction despite a few narrative criticisms. The movie, however, has absolutely benefitted with time. Its convoluted and surprising story is more consistent than critics claimed. Chalk it up to not knowing what you’ve got till it’s gone, but in today’s landscape there seems to be significantly less thought put into the construction and originality of thriller film narratives. Roger Ebert admired the film, giving it 3.5/4 stars and highlighting Michael Douglas’ performance. Recently, Douglas has cited that what he’s most proud about the film is that “it’s one of the very few movies that you could not guess the ending… I thought it was a really well-made picture, very unpredictable.”
Much in the way Zodiac has received its postpartum praise as one of Fincher’s finest works, The Game is the next retrospective stop as it holds up strongly as a twisting, unique entry in one of our finest contemporary filmmaker’s pantheon.