Looking back on David Fincher's two early films 'Seven' and 'The Game', which were made two years after one another, they have more than proximity of time in common. Both clever genre films seem to be like two sides of the same coin, both overachieving in execution, transforming what could have been generic indistinguishable and unmemorable thrillers into enthralling psychological examinations of our human character.
The Game (1997) dir. David Fincher
Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Peter Donat
By Alan Bacchus
Games are at play in both Seven and The Game. In Seven, the reigns are held by a psychopathic serial killer testing the will and unwilling victim played by Brad Pitt. John Doe (Kevin Spacey), upset with the world, forces the perfect-specimen of society to see the evils of the world in the most horrific way possible. In The Game, Nicholas Van Orten is somewhat complicit in his game, but he enters into his harrowing journey under false pretenses. For Van Orten, the problems with his life are visualized elegantly in a beautifully morose opening sequence, shot in earthy and haunting 8mm film, fake home movies which show the wealthy but depressed life of Nicholas’s father. The sequence ends with his father jumping off his balcony to his death,
As a result, Van Orten’s lifestyle is typically cold. His relationship with his co-workers and ex-wife are unemotive two-word sentences at most. And as a ruthless capitalist, he's introduced firing one of his father’s older colleagues (Armin Muehler-Stahl) in order to save some falling stock, but perhaps subconsciously to finally exert his authority of the ghost of his father. If anything, Van Orten is an on-the-nose caricature of Douglas’s Gordon Gekko, the '80s shark, perhaps updated for the '90s – devoid of the enjoyment of the corporate game, now simply numb to everything around him.
Enter Nicholas’s brother (Sean Penn), who gives him a CRS (Consumer Recreation Services) gift card as a birthday present. He’s not interested in any games, but through some cleverly placed covert clues Nicholas is subliminally persuaded to participate.
Fincher takes his time with the mechanics of the game. The initial adventures Van Orten finds himself in are overly telegraphed, feats of physical strength, a chase here and there, or, as Nicholas himself puts it, ‘elaborately staged pranks’. All of this is either an illusion to mask the true and devious goals of CRS to scam Van Orten out of his money, or to gradually put the man into a hallucinogenic daze in order to push him through the other side of consciousness. At all times throughout, in the back of our minds, we know that it's possible that it's all fake, all part of the game. And so the genius of this film is Fincher’s ability, through shear awe-inspiring cinematic skill, to put us in the mind of Van Orten and have us think from his point of view every step of the way.
This was my experience upon first viewing, as malleable as the puppet Van Orten finds on his driveway, pulled and push at will by Fincher into every dark corner he wants us to go. Thus making every twist a surprise or a shock, and in the case of the impressive climax, a complete revelation.
Seven had the same effect, but while that film bludgeoned its audience with a cold hard dose of cynical reality in the climax, The Game subverts these expectations by taking another direction, transforming its main character into a new person, Van Orten free of the lifelong shackles of his father and able to make his life thereafter his own.
The Game is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.