September 26, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Game (1997)

by Vadim Rizov

The Game

Promoting The Game in Brussels in 1997, director David Fincher was aware not everyone loved his third feature, musing that "a couple of people here have said: 'So you made a really good movie last time. Why would you go and make a movie like this?'" "Last time" was 1995's Se7en, an unexpected smash whose eye-catching grotesquerie provided camouflage for a sub-Dogville exercise in moral determinism. The beautifully made thriller has Kevin Spacey's serial killer orchestrating a totally improbable series of events, anticipating detective Brad Pitt's every reaction in order to make a point about human nature's inevitable responses when pushed too far through a mental Rube Goldberg machine. At the climax, Pitt cracks, thereby theoretically proving something about human nature.

The Game much more entertainingly and productively pivots on unbelievably-airtight manipulation of a very stressed-out man. Millionaire Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) lives in a San Francisco mansion, moving from one suffocatingly toney interior to another. (Like Fincher's Fight Club and Panic Room, The Game's protagonist tries to make his life safer through materialism, an approach which proves utterly inadequate.) Housekeeper Ilsa (Carroll Baker) makes dinner and quietly worries about his health as Nicholas approaches his 48th birthday. His dad killed himself at that age, and the idea of a similar fall weighs on him. Ne'er-do-well brother Nicky (Sean Penn) gives him a present: a gift certificate to Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Their well-appointed offices offer big promises about the fun to be in "the game" but no details. "Humor me with specifics," Nicholas seethes, channeling his famously controlling director, but signs a release form out of curiosity. After submitting to a half-day's worth of psych tests, he goes home with no idea what to expect.

The Game

Once "The Game" starts, Nicholas isn't sure if he's the subject of a sadistic prank that's supposed to jolt him into a few cheap kicks, the object of a more sinister cabal seeking to steal his considerable fortune, or if he's simply marked for death. CRS can predict his every response, a drastic parody of how Hollywood thrillers hope to manipulate their audiences. Any summary should stop here to preserve The Game's twist-every-five-minutes pace for first-timers. The reversals and surprises come from so many directions that surrender is pleasurable for the viewer, a delight compounded by watching audience stand-in/capitalist prick Van Orton freak out at rather than admire the ingenuity of his tormentors. (As with Gordon Gekko, the famously liberal Douglas seems to get a major kick out of attacking capitalism by exemplifying it at its vilest.)

Fincher grew up in San Francisco during the reign of the Zodiac serial killer, who threatened to off school buses of children. In Fincher's memory, he was "the kid on the bus, my dad going 'See you later.' And I was going, 'You work from home, couldn't you give us a ride?'" Even in broad daylight, San Francisco seems overcast with a morbid pallor, anticipating Fincher's career best Zodiac. But it's also a logical successor to Seven: Fincher loves cramped workspaces, and it's no coincidence that the swirling desert nightmare climax of Seven and the conclusion of The Game hinge upon open spaces where order can't be imposed—a worst-case scenario for such a famously detail-oriented director.

The Game

The Game's the apex of Fincher Phase One, which can roughly be said to deal with reactive characters forced to deal with situations instigated by others: Ripley in Alien 3, Pitt in Seven, Edward Norton in Fight Club (sort of), Jodie Foster in Panic Room. These are spiraling nightmares in which key pieces of information are withheld from viewers and protagonists as seemingly irrational events occur. A five year gap followed, and then (ignoring the sad-sack vision of lack of agency in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) Fincher began a series of films about people as task-driven and unrelenting as he is: Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac, Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The Game's setting on Fincher's childhood turf points to how personal the film comes off, with Van Orton confronting the specters of his own adolescence, building to a deeply moving climax. For all its chilly game-playing and waspily amusing dialogue, it's the only Fincher film that could be deemed "warm." Receiving the Criterion treatment (including a newly restored digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer extraordinaire Harris Savides) on DVD and Blu-ray some fifteen years and a couple weeks after its theatrical release, The Game deserves respect not just as an undervalued Fincher work but an internally consistent key to his obsessions. As The Wire's Omar Little might've said: it's all in The Game.

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Posted by ahillis at September 26, 2012 12:51 PM