The Game: Criterion Collection
October 1, 2012
After the success of Seven (1995) expectations were high for David Fincher’s next film. He had risen from the ashes of the Alien 3 (1993) debacle and produced a critical and commercial hit when everyone least expected it. What would he do next? Never one to take the easy route, Fincher confounded critics and audiences alike with The Game (1997), a fascinating film that plays around with the conventions of the thriller genre like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone. Critical reaction was fairly positive and the box office returns were decent but not as good as Seven’s. Even among fans of Fincher’s films, The Game is somewhat underappreciated but worth revisiting if only to explore the shadowy alleyways and nightmarish scenarios that torment its protagonist.
Nicholas Van Orton (Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker who lives alone in his family’s palatial estate just outside of downtown San Francisco. He follows a daily routine that involves making business deals. Imagine an older, slightly mellower Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987) who somehow escaped imprisonment and moved to the west coast. Nicholas lives in a hermetically-sealed world as evident from the meticulously decorated, museum-like mansion he inhabits.
It’s his birthday and his ne’er-do-well younger brother Conrad (a refreshingly jovial Penn) meets him for lunch where he gives his older sibling a present. It is a pre-paid invite for a company known as Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Conrad tells Nicholas to call them because it will make his life “fun.” He is rather enigmatic about CRS, describing them as an “entertainment service” and that what they offer is a “profound life experience.” Nicholas is turning the same age as his father when he died and it is implied, via flashbacks that his greatest fear is ending up like him so he decides to give CRS a try.
One night, Nicholas arrives to find a life-sized doll lying in his driveway with a key from CRS in its mouth. Later on, his television starts talking to him. His game has begun. Nicholas’ day begins as usual only now with the awareness that he’s playing the game and this causes him to look at everyone and everything differently. Strange things start to happen. He can’t open his briefcase during an important meeting. A waitress spills a tray of drinks all over him. A homeless man collapses in the street right in front of him.
At first, these incidents don’t seem like much but as the film progresses they take on a more ominous tone and become more dangerous. For example, Nicholas and Christine (Unger), the waitress who spilled the drinks on him, take a homeless man to an emergency room that suddenly becomes deserted and the lights go out. The game also starts to take on a much grander scale. How can so many people be in on it? Are we to take everything literally or, like Nicholas, are we supposed to accept things as they are and take the ride? A certain sense of paranoia sets in and we are constantly guessing what is real and what isn’t. The deeper Nicholas goes into the game, the more nightmarish the scenarios become and the film escalates into full-on paranoid thriller mode.
Michael Douglas is no stranger to playing icy, business types and initially Nicholas is clearly a riff on his Gekko character only this one is more receptive to changing his life. After all, he has no choice. Douglas does a good job of gradually showing how Nicholas changes from a repressed individual to someone who appreciates life thanks to being thrown into several life-threatening situations. It’s only once he’s been chased by vicious dogs, dropped into a dumpster and almost drowned that he begins to appreciate life. However, as the game continues to escalate, he gradually unravels which puts his mental and physical limits to the test. Nicholas has to hit rock bottom, to be torn down completely, before he can change into a better person.
Sean Penn brings a playful vibe to his first scene in the film and it contrasts well off of Douglas’ repressed character. Penn also bring a welcome levity, like when Conrad tells Nicholas that he remembers being at the restaurant they meet at many years ago. Nicholas says that he took him and Conrad corrects him: “No, I used to buy crystal meth off the maitre’d.” The two men banter back and forth as only siblings can. Conrad is the polar opposite of his brother. He speaks his mind and has a snarky sense of humor. However, this is flipped on its head when Conrad appears for the second time while Nicholas is in the midst of the game. This time, Penn brings a frantic intensity as he rants and raves about being hounded by CRS. Conrad has been reduced to a paranoid mess and gets into messy confrontation with his brother as their dysfunctional relationship reaches the boiling point.
With his trademark atmospheric cinematography (courtesy of Harris Savides, who would collaborate with Fincher on Zodiac), Fincher presents the city as a gradually threatening place where danger lurks at every corner so that what was once familiar has become very strange. He also does an excellent job orchestrating the various nightmare scenarios that Nicholas experiences, chief among them a white-knuckle taxi cab ride that ends up with him trapped in the car as it goes speeding into the San Francisco Bay. As the car descends into deeper water, a frantic Nicholas desperately tries to find a way out. The Game is more than a cinematic jigsaw puzzle. It is also about a man coming to grips with his past, a son finally dealing with the death of his father – something that has haunted him his whole life. It has been said that the film is a modern re-telling of the Scrooge story – a mean, rich man learns the value of life by being shown how precious it is. The Game is ultimately a tale of redemption with a surprisingly satisfying emotional payoff at the film’s conclusion.
The first disc features an audio commentary that was included on the laser disc Criterion put out in 1997 and features director David Fincher, actor Michael Douglas, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, director of photography Harris Savides, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, and visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug. Douglas candidly admits that he was going through a messy divorce while making The Game and talks briefly about how this informed his performance. Brancato and Ferris talk about how the character of Conrad evolved over time and various script drafts. Fincher speaks intelligently and disarmingly about the film’s look and style. He also tells some pretty funny anecdotes, like filming Daniel Schorr’s cameo. Finally, Savides, Beecroft and Haug talk about how they contributed to creating a deceptive thriller. This is an informative and engaging track that fans of this film will thoroughly enjoy.
The second disc starts off with an alternate ending that is less Hollywood-like than the one in the final version, maintaining Nicholas as a solitary figure.
There are four film-to-storyboard comparisons that allow you to watch these scenes with their corresponding drawings. You can see how much Fincher adhered to them in the final film.
Also included is behind-the-scenes footage for four major set pieces and location shots with optional commentary by Fincher, Douglas, Savides, Beecroft, and Haug. We see on set footage juxtaposed with the finished sequence. One highlight is the fantastically staged taxi crash and we see just how it was done. This extra provides fascinating insight into how Fincher works.
We get the entire “Psychological Test Film” that CRS subject Nicholas to in the film in order to test his tolerance for disturbing imagery.
Finally, there is the teaser trailer and its render-test with optional commentary by digital animation supervisor Richard “Dr.” Baily. He talks about the genesis of it – an idea pitched by Fincher. Also included is the trailer with optional commentary by Fincher, who talks about how he tried to go against the conventional way these things are put together.