CRITERION REVIEW: #627 THE GAME (dir. David Fincher) 1997
“The game is tailored specifically to each participant. Think of it as a great vacation, except you don’t go to it, it comes to you.”
THE FILM: There’s a reason that most control-freaks with artistic compulsions tend to be attracted to the cinema over, let’s say, poetry or the local Shakespeare troupe. A writer has command over a pen and a performer has command over their various faculties, but a director has command over an army. Of course, the filmmaker’s true power doesn’t begin to express itself until the viewer enters the equation, until someone sits down and submits themselves to the illusion on display. Entering a movie theater, pressing play on your remote, whatever — it all amounts to a tacit agreement that you’re relinquishing control over the world as you know it to a bunch of strangers for a few hours. You’re trusting an unseen or possibly unknown person to determine everything you see and hear — both sides agree to pretend that a stream of still images beamed in rapid succession on a blank screen are real enough to believe in, and the filmmakers take care of the rest. You give an unknown force permission to trick you, and then you forget about that agreement, altogether. It’s not until the lights come up that you remember that it isn’t actually real, that you bought a ticket to be seduced by a flash-fire of flickering lights. If Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up was the 90’s most perceptive analysis as to why we need the movies, The Game remains the era’s ultimate dissection as to how they work.
Needless to say, David Fincher was born to be a filmmaker. Behind the camera, his attention to detail makes him an auteur, without the camera, it would make him a tyrant. He’s among the most technically involved filmmakers on Earth, a man who candidly fetishizes the tools of his trade (his commentary tracks also suggest why Fincher could never be a magician, explaining his tricks is clearly one of his greatest pleasures). With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Fincher fits this material like a glove, transforming one of Hollywood’s hottest spec scripts into the pivotal film in the evolving career of American cinema’s most exciting commercial auteur. Making a movie allows Fincher to own you in every which way, to manipulate you at your own insistence, and he wants you to know that. But that’s not enough — he wants you to know that he owns you, he wants you to know exactly how he does it, and then he wants to get away with it, anyway. I mean, isn’t that the ultimate trick? Fooling someone is easy, but telling them exactly how you’re going to fool them and then watching them fall for it anyway… that’s power. It reminds me of The Prestige (what doesn’t?), I hear Michael Caine’s voice in my head:
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige.”
That’s as good a plot synopsis of The Game as you’ll ever read, but I suppose I’ll take a stab.
Few films put you into their protagonist’s shoes like The Game does with Nicholas Van Orten, and that’s just fine cause those shoes are probably worth more than my entire wardrobe. A joyless figurehead of the 1%, Nicholas (Michael Douglas in one of his finest performances) is an imperious tycoon, a lonely workaholic who has no family to fill any of the rooms of his San Francisco mansion, but still insists that his live-in housekeeper stay in a cottage outside of the main house. Divorced and aging, Nicholas is nearing his 48th birthday, and growing increasingly afraid that he’s inherited more from his father than the late man’s wealth — beat-up 8mm footage tells us that the Sr. Van Orten jumped from the mansion’s roof on his 48th birthday, an event that Nicolas interpreted as a potentially hereditary nervous collapse. All of Nicholas’ neuroses build to a head when his free-wheeling brother, Conrad (a typical Sean Penn) forces his way into the picture, offering his older sibling a birthday gift unlike any other. It’s something called “The Game,” the product of a hazy corporation called Consumer Recreation Services. Conrad is unwilling to share any more details, but he promises Nicholas that it will “Make his life fun, again.” Nicholas reluctantly plays along, going into the CRS offices and submitting himself to an exhaustive battery of physiological tests. Upon leaving, Nicholas is told that he was declared unfit for The Game, and that his brother’s gift has been refunded. That’s when shit gets weird.
Nicholas is told that he’s going to be the subject of a game that’s going to completely dominate his life, he’s just incapable of accepting the illusion. He continues to take everything at face-value, exhibiting a grotesque overconfidence in his own agency which makes it that much easier for him to be duped. But what Nicholas doesn’t realize is that his own self-identity is a product of the cinema, Fincher exclusively illustrating the tycoon’s memories in strips of damaged 8mm film. One key shot during Nicholas’ exhausting battery of CRS exams finds him left alone in a movie theater as a freaky string of Kubrickian nonsense is projected on the screen in front of him — he stares into the project and is blasted by the round cones of light, like they’re swallowing him whole, a tractor beam into a uniquely cinematic space that violates reality with the sheer force of its own velocity. You know that The Game has begun, how can that be entertaining, watching the protagonist struggle to make his way through a mystery that the film itself has already solved for its audience? But then… doubt creeps in. Yeah, CRS probably knows what they’re doing, but would they really trap a client in the backseat of a cab and hurl it into the San Francisco Bay for shits and giggles? Would they fire bullets at his head? Could they even fake that if they wanted to? Fincher tells you that he’s going to fool you — he even tells you how — and then he does it, anyway. When the end rolls around and you question the logistics of CRS’ operation (“How did they pull that off? It was too real — I saw it!”), that’s precisely when Fincher has got you. In the cinema, believing is seeing. When Nicholas and Conrad split the bill and the CRS employee offers them a curt “Thank you,” he stares directly down the lens of the camera.
Of course, The Game isn’t just a dry bit of showmanship, it’s an unusually rich thriller in spite (or beyond) its main deceit (and not only for Howard Shore’s spiraling score or Harris Savides’ seductive cinematography). It makes for an epoch-defining treatise on the roles that we play in each other’s lives, the inherent egocentrism that’s inextricable from the human experience regardless of one’s wealth or circumstances. It’s interesting that both The Game and The Truman Show were made right as the Internet was beginning to reveal itself as a revolution, and perspectives were being shifted as violently as they were at the birth of the printing press or the photograph. You know who you are, but all of the sudden you’re not so sure about everyone else. Avatars, handles, and anonymity were beginning to make people realize that identity was suddenly harder to pin down, and that individual agency was no match for the power of networks. Through the cathartic trials of Nicholas Van Orten, The Game helped to crystallize what everyone was experiencing. Returning to the film 15 years down the road, the line that stands out the most is one that was spoken only in passing: “I wouldn’t worry about it, it’s out of your hands.”
THE TRANSFER: The Game has simply never looked better, at least not since opening night. Criterion’s HD transfer proves worth the wait, a lustrous digital edition that pivotally nails the contrast and the black spaces, refusing for the integrity of the experience to be compromised by the dark voids of night that dominate much of the film.
THE EXTRAS: This might be Criterion’s most loaded disc in a while. There’s a (lame) alternate ending (complete with slating), and five bits of scene-specific behind-the-scenes footage that reveals how individual set pieces were shot (all of which have their own commentary). The stuff on “The Fall” is incredible, Michael Douglas is a trooper. There’s also a neat storyboard-to-completion feature that provides insight into Fincher’s preparedness, and finally the full CRS psychological test video in all of its uncut glory.
THE BEST BIT: Sure, it was recorded 15 years ago (and you know it), but the commentary track is a doozy (if that Chinatown blu-ray proved anything, it’s that Fincher should add a commentary track to ever film, regardless of his involvement). A whole bunch of folks show up (including Michael Douglas, Harris Savides, and the script’s original writers), all of whom were recorded separately. The format is initially a bit of a bummer, but it also promotes a certain back-stabbery that you seldom hear on stuff like this, with all parties very candidly discussing how things went down. A seriously fulfilling track.
THE ARTWORK: Neil Kellerhouse’s cover is as gorgeous as it is spoilery. Kellerhouse has a history with Fincher (he designed the promo art for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), and he absolutely nails the tone of the film, with one of Criterion’s best covers ever. The booklet inside is a bit more subdued, but similarly effective. (click here for a peek under the covers)
THE ARBITRARY VERDICT: 90 / 100