With David Fincher now the front runner for best director, I think now is as good a time as any to examine his earlier film The Game, a thriller involving rich businessmen who have their lives deliberately thrown into chaos.
This is a very well done thriller that has one fatal flaw – its set up. It is easy to see why “the game” would be appealing to its client base. It is the same reason that politicians like to go to sadomasochistic clubs – when you are in a position of power, the thrill would be to have it all lost. The problem is that the film never really explains what “the game” is. Would anyone play a game where they don’t know the objective? Or where it seems like they are not having much fun? I know it is meant to be a deep psychoanalytic look at the main character, but it is set up in the guise of a “vacation” that comes to you.
Ultimately, the film becomes a large psychoanalytic journey amongst a man who thought his life was, if not perfect, then structured in the best way possible. But still, the catalyst was meant to be something that was fun – I just never got that sense such a thing was happening.
The plot involves Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Dougles) an investment banker who is given a birthday voucher by his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) to a company called Consumer Recreation Services. He goes to their offices, and finds that they are involved in creating something they only call “the game.” While he believes himself to be rejected, he ends up finding himself involved in it. As he tries to figure out exactly what “the game” is (which apparently involves several intrusions into his business and private life), he meets a woman named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) who may be able to help him.
I just really wish I understood what “the game” is. It seems to me that people would not willingly pay for (let me see) having their homes broken into, ruining their property, stealing their money, and leaving them for dead in an unfamiliar country.And it is the fact that there is no really no parameters in this game that makes me constantly question it.No one sits down at a chessboard and just randomly starts playing it. Every game has a strategy and a way to win – and lose. Besides, Nicholas never bothers calling the help line. I figure that would have happened after the vandalism out of his house.
So the set up is weak, but the pay off is incredible. As with any great thriller, Nicholas changes during the experience. At the start, he is a man who barely even acknowledges that other people exist. This is due to some trauma, but mostly because he is far too callous. The people that he meets, he comes to value. He is a rich man who takes At the end…well, I dare not say, but it is obvious how much his psych has changed and his hubris destroyed.
It is also quite clear how inspired Fincher was by Brian DePalma, John Carpenter, and Alfred Hitchcock. It is one of the best directed thrillers of the 90s. The world is constantly closing around Nicholas, and I could not tell (neither could here) what was real and what was going on. That was helpful – and after all, it was necessary for the framework of Nicholas’ breaking psyche. The ending is so well done (from a technical standpoint) as are the chase scenes. Fincher always gives his all to even lesser films, and I can certainly admire his dedication.
However, the fact that set up is so poorly defined makes this a worse Fincher film than it really should be. The entire time, I was cognizant of the fact that not only had Nicholas paid for it, but had volunteered for it. Surely there was an opt out clause. Why should Nicholas continue, after all, if he felt his life was in danger? So why was the film so insistent on making CRS out to be a villainous organization? I think it may have been helpful for the film to take a more fantastical element – introduce a North By Northwest esque espionage plot, and make the stakes higher. Something that would make it feel like an actual game, or takes advantage of Nicholas’ skills. The pay off is there, and it is brilliant. But the set up is not.