The Game (1997)

The Game Douglas Fincher

IN ITS EARLY STAGES ‘The Game’ lays out one tantalizing tarot card after another with a nearly perfect smirking patience. A tinkering, Satie-tinged piano play over silent and savaged old footage of a midcentury wedding and a young boy, somehow uncertain, whose father recedes from their photo pose like a specter into the darkness behind them. By the time we snap to modernity and Michael Douglas’s craggy face looks up at us into the mirror, we already feel as though we’ve sifted through the shoeboxes of his memo-aerie. He is Nicholas Van Orton, an investment banker whose world is filled with emptiness; his every movement sends reverberations into the vacant spaces that wall him off from human contact and emotion of any kind. He is deeply unsympathetic as an adult, but with our fleeting view into his childhood we are compelled to attend his impassive sleepwalking.

Maintaining this pensive tone is critical to the film’s development, especially in the first two acts when we’re still running on faith in Van Orton that he has yet to substantiate. And the twisted proposition that comes to him on his birthday—“The Game”—is a simultaneously familiar yet foreign blend of meta-fantasy and alternate realities that hardly seems suited to a man of such muted interests. Indeed, the reasons for his participation at all are not well substantiated, even later in the film when explosive family arguments reveal the dynamic long at work behind the scenes. And that is ‘The Game’s largest, and arguably only relevant, flaw—its product is solid, but the sales pitch doesn’t fly.

First the good. Fincher’s direction is taut and pragmatic while retaining touches of grace, and his characteristically dark treatments suffuse the sets with shadows, enhancing Van Orton’s solitude as well as the feeling that he is a performer on the stage. Douglas, for his part, plays the tightly-wound skeptic with magnificent ease, never pushing the drama of a moment too far or outpacing the natural momentum of the plot. His mania and our tension both culminate at the same bewildering moment, high atop a nameless office building in San Francisco, and in a daze he follows his father in a muffled tumble to the ground so far below.

Then the twist upon the twist (x3?) suddenly comes full circle, the final shoe of this arachnid set drops to the floor. But there are only so many times an audience, much less a protagonist, can buy the “No, seriously, this time I’m telling the truth,” line without simply wanting to disengage. Or call the emergency line provided to him, which Van Orton never seems to do, even in the early going when he clearly wasn’t digging the ride but hadn’t yet come to view his ‘playmates’ as a murderous international crime syndicate on par with SPECTRE. Our voyage through ‘The Game’ is an exciting one, but its hull is never made sound before castoff, and upon swinging back round into port we finally realize the absurd contortions of the tour we’ve taken. One is not inclined to reflect on the lessons of Van Orton’s personal odyssey or his rebirth; rather, the heinous risks and vast ridiculousness of retrospection turn his harrowing gauntlet into a ludicrous carousel. And the thought of a sullenly staring, suspendered-in-shirtsleeves Michael Douglas riding a bobbing unicorn is just too, too much.

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