The Game (dir. David Fincher, 1997)
“I’d would rather, I would rather go blind, boy, than to see you walk away from me.” –Etta James
“Some people think that if their opponent plays a beautiful game, it’s OK to lose. I don’t. You have to be merciless.” – Magnus Carlsen (23 year old Norwegian Chess Phenomenon)
You ever get the feeling that somebody upstairs is fucking (f-bomb right outta the gate!) with you?
I was leaving work the other night and I had to run by the grocery store before catching the train. My weather app said there was a 20% chance of rain. I looked at the sky. No clouds. I hesitated and thought about grabbing an umbrella. I literally had the umbrella between my fingers and thought “nah”.
So after getting about 3 blocks away, the sky just opens up. I’m talking biblical-intensity rain. Piles and piles of water. So here I am, sprinting between awnings, trying to avoid getting soaked, but still headed to the grocery store. And as I approach I see some commotion. No joke, in the middle of this downpour, there was a group of construction workers tearing up the entire sidewalk right in front of the store. At this point it’s almost 10:30pm. There’ s nothing else open. I have no food back at my apartment because I still live like a 40 year old divorcee. I’m drenched. I’m tired. And I felt like the fates were specifically targeting me. Almost like there were some coordinated effort among an unseen global consortium to ruin my night.
Well, in a way that’s the conceit of The Game, a 1997 film from David Fincher. The movie follows a rich San Francisco banker, Nicolas Van Orten (Michael Douglas), who is given a voucher on his 48th birthday to participate in a mysterious “game”. No details. Just the promise that his life will change forever. He reluctantly accepts. The ensuing film is part action, part horror, and part puzzle film. Each “game” is built for the individual player and Nick’s involves dubious waiters, runaway taxi cabs, broken elevators, machine guns, and other forms of mayhem. Of course as the film progresses the line between reality and the “game” begin to blur so by the final moments of the film you’re completely in Nick’s point of view. You have no idea who to trust.
In fact, Nick and other characters repeat variations on the refrain”It’s just a game” throughout the film. In a way this refrain is similar to the classic marketing from the Wes Craven’s Last House on The Left, which urged viewers to avoid fainting by repeating “It’s only a movie”. But that’s part of what makes these great right? They tell you up front not to believe what you see. They explicitly lay out the illusion and yet, we do. We believe. We can’t help ourselves.
And it’s always an interesting question, how does an audience determine which inconsistencies to ignore and which to scoff at? I can’t tell you how many films I’ve seen where the big picture things (The fact that there’s a masked man flying from planet to planet) don’t bother me. But the small inconsistencies (Wait a second! Why are the teeth of all these Renaissance characters whiter than mine?) can ruin a scene. Well, The Game confronts these questions head on. It almost dares us not to believe. In that way, like so many films, it’s a film that’s actively telling a narrative and at the same time exploring the artifice of telling a narrative.
The mysterious company in charge of all these obstacles and double-crosses is called CRS, Consumer Recreational Services. However, throughout the film CRS appears as an acronym for any random company that’s used to carry out the CRS master plan. For example, a van outside Nick’s home is from Cable Repair Services. Or the cab company that picks up Nick is California Regal Sedans. All these companies are in on the plan. This recurring device is reminiscent of John Williams’s score in The Long Goodbye. Williams composed one tune, but it keeps popping up in different forms, as a rock song on the radio, through the horns of a mariachi band, chanted by hippies, etc.
It’s also hard not to think about the modern politics while watching certain scenes in The Game. First off, the film takes place in San Francisco, home to Google buses and the country’s highest wealth gap. About halfway through the film, Nick starts to think CRS has concocted “the game” as an elaborate way to rob him. When he confronts Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), a waitress who’s part of the “game”, with his robbery theory he pleads with her: “That’s not just my money. Those are pension funds and payrolls, 600 million dollars worth”. Does this sound familiar?! It was was the plea of Wall Street after the financial crash. You, the taxpayer, can’t let us go under, we control pensions and payrolls, and loans, and mortgages.
Sean Penn adds a manic jolt of energy with his character, Chris Van Orton, Nick’s wild, free wheeling brother. Chris is the perfect foil to Nick’s stiff-Martini personality. It’s Chris who gives Nick the voucher for the “game”. I especially love their early scene on Nick’s birthday. Chris meets Nick in a twinkling, upscale restaurant. It’s the kind of place where waiters whisper and the bathrooms smell better than most apartments. Chris arrives and flops down at the table like it’s 2am at Waffle House. Chris even whips out a cigarette and starts to smoke. This isn’t allowed. He does it anyway. Like a whiter version of Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop.
The Game shares a lot of tropes with classic paranoia films. Is that guy in trench coat really following me?… Probably, not many people wear trench coats unless they’re following someone…or they never got out of that weird 1998 Matrix trench coat phase. Additionally, I found a lot of visual and tonal similarities to Eyes Wide Shut. The way each shot is composed to make the characters look isolated, as well as the whole rich man in a menacing underworld. The Game and Eyes Wide Shut are explorations of those nocturnal experiences that take on the qualities of dreams.
I’ll be honest, I don’t pray at the alter of Fincher. I like a few of his films (Seven, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and absolutely love others (The Social Network, the first half of Zodiac). But regardless of what you may think of his shadowy perversions and mostly joyless characters. You’ve got to admit that the guy has never really had a misstep. Despite having made more than a dozen or so films, as well as television and music videos, there’s no Always on his resume.
And it seems to me, and I’m kinda just talking outta my ass here, that Fincher is eager to explore the intricacies of white male power. Specifically, I’m thinking of The Social Network (explicitly about a college students whose success and new found power corrupts to the core), House of Cards (where the corrupting influence of power is sly and all consuming), or even something like Fight Club (where a powerless man seeks refuge in an alternate powerful split personality). The Game fits into this preoccupation but with a slight inversion. Nick is a man bored with power. A man so wealthy and comfortable that he’s willing to take a plunge into an unknown “game” from an unknown company. So instead of exploring the corrupting influence of power, Fincher examines what it’s like for someone thoroughly ensconced in power to let go. To completely give themselves over to a higher plane of reality and control. To give themselves over to the tentacles of a faceless corporation and its “game”. And ultimately, in the final shots of the film, Nick is redeemed. When Nick finally jumps from a building, believing he will die, relinquishing his life….only to land on a massive inflatable landing pad, Fincher makes one of the boldest statements of his career: The only way for the powerful to fall is when they choose to…
– I’m sure part of the reason Michael Douglas plays so many wealthy, banker types is because he looks so incredible in a suit. Seriously, it’s hard for me to imagine him a t-shirt and sweats just because he seems to have been birthed, fully formed, sporting a double breasted jacket. Maybe I’m particularity aware of Douglas’s flawless suit game (PUN!) because as many of my prom dates can attest, I look and feel ridiculous in suits. Like somebody’s kid brother who snuck into the attic and got out grandpa’s old tweed.
– If you want a rare glimpse into Fincher’s thought process, read THIS INTERVIEW (Be warned it’s an interview with Playboy magazine. So maybe don’t read it at work. But on the other hand you can legitimately say you were reading Playboy for the articles). Fincher is candid and insightful. I was especially fascinated by his reasons for casting Ben Affleck in the upcoming Gone Girl.