The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle. –Stanley Kubrick.
David Fincher is a genius.
I mean, I knew this before. Zodiac, Seven, Fight Club, Gone Girl, The Social Network… all masterpieces of style. But it was rewatching The Game a few days ago that placed the final chip in the motherboard; something about his oeuvre clicked suddenly, and I had a eureka! moment. Even though I’d bought Criterion’s comprehensive Blu-ray, I hadn’t seen the film since it was released to theatres in 1997 and remembered it only as a mildly entertaining thriller. That was the critical consensus at the time; like a Kubrick film, it was too much to see all the buried meanings and intricacies of Fincher’s direction one just one viewing.
I think that for a movie or a play to say anything really truthful about life, it has to do so very obliquely, so as to avoid all pat conclusions and neatly tied-up ideas. The point of view it is conveying has to be completely entwined with a sense of life as it is, and has to be got across through a subtle injection into the audience’s consciousness.–SK
I interpret the above quote to mean that Kubrick believed that most films are only about what their plots are about. The narrative of The Lost Weekend, for example, involves an alcoholic writer going on a mother of a bender. Its themes concern themselves mainly with that of alcoholism, disease, help, and recovery—that is, not much more than what its plot would indicate. This isn’t to say it is a bad film; quite the contrary, I regard it quite highly. It won four Academy Awards in 1946 including Picture, Actor, and Director. But what you see in the film is what you get, basically; it could work just as well on the stage as on the screen. The theme’s treatment is not necessarily inextricably tied to the medium.
From 2001: A Space Odyssey onward, Kubrick’s themes and meanings were inextricably tied to cinema. (Okay, I’ll accept arguments that make a case for Lolita.) Barry Lyndon can only work as a film; the very point of it is the tightly-controlled image Kubrick lets you see. The slow zooms out, the painterly regard of his subjects, could not be duplicated in any other medium. Eyes Wide Shut bored people who felt it was a shallow, slow-moving story about marital issues. But he had so brilliantly coded his ideas of fidelity, jealousy, the bourgeoisie, celebrity and stardom, sex in the modern age, oneirism, his lead actor’s sexuality, and so on, that they flew over most audiences’ heads at first. I’m not saying that he hid the meanings of his films, as the disembodied voices of Room 237 do; merely that he was a virtuoso at cinematically expressing his ideas, rather than simply having characters talk about them.
Certainly many directors are masters of mise-en-scène, but not since Stanley Kubrick, and perhaps David Lynch, has a director so completely mastered subliminal suggestion. The trend continues throughout David Fincher’s work, but let’s examine The Game, as it is fresh in my mind.
(Caution: Spoilers herein. It is best to read this essay after watching the film.)
The first shot we see of Nicholas Van Orton suited up and in his bimmer, he is speeding down a San Francisco thoroughfare to work. His car is the only one in the frame driving over trolley tracks, seemingly tied to them. This shot sets up an important visual theme in the film: that Van Orton’s path is set, that his free will is illusory at best, that an invisible hand guides every situation. (This concept is very important at the film’s end.)
How guarded Van Orton is. The only real relationship he has in his life is with his brother Conrad, yet even he is held at a distance. See how Fincher frames the first conversation we see between Van Orton and his brother. Conrad’s black shirt blends into the black background, so his face is highlighted. There is nothing to separate Conrad from his environment—indeed, he almost seems to blend into it. Nicholas, however, contrasts with the white sheet of the window. He is flanked by two pairs of glasses, the lamps against the wall and the table lamp. Between him and his brother are the service plates, serviettes, and cutlery. There is so much around him, he may as well be in a bubble.
After Conrad gives him the gift card for CRS, we again see Van Orton driving his RichDoucheBagMobile. We see his car under the electric lines for the trolleys, again suggesting that, though in a vehicle designed for free movement, there is something unseen guiding his progress.
When Van Orton finally enters CRS, for the first time we see him in sync with an environment in the film. The offices are stark and clinical, the walls black and gray, illuminated with white lights. Note Nicholas’s wardrobe: gray, black, and white. CRS obviously reaches for Van Orton, as the Overlook does to Jack Torrence (though in a very different way).
I think that the best plot is no apparent plot. I like a slow start, the start that gets under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.–SK
Then, the plot takes off: Nicholas comes home to a figure laid out on his driveway in the same manner as his father after committing suicide. It turns out to be a clown, which Van Orton takes inside, and in whose mouth he finds a key. Look at this shot: the clown is in the foreground, the shallow depth of field obviously indicating that this should be the viewer’s focus. But the movement is to the left, as Van Orton twirls the key around. Our eyes go from the clown to the out-of-focus Van Orton. Though he won’t discover it until later, he is being watched by CRS through a camera in the clown’s eye. It’s a brilliant—and brilliantly subtle—bit of foreshadowing.
Nicholas is entirely out of his element once The Game begins. He is quite an outlier among the sodium-lit backwaters of San Francisco. The contrast between the warm, earthy tones of Van Orton’s bourgeois domiciles and the nocturnal neon of The Game is drastic.
The film was not entirely naturalistic to begin with, but the post-CRS office scenes exude such an oneiric quality that one wonders how much of what we are seeing is meant to be taken literally.
This is where I often lose people, this symbolism talk. Consider: Nicholas wakes up in a graveyard in Mexico. Come on—when looking at the gravestones, is Nick’s all-white suit really a coincidence?
The image of him in white, on the same scale as the white graves, almost indistinguishable from them… Fincher handles these images like a boss: the symbolism is there, but you don’t have to see it if you don’t want to. The situation isn’t too off to be unbelievable, but does seem oddly improbable.
These symbolic images I’ve displayed do not do justice to the tone Fincher manages to set. Yes, Van Orton is isolated from those around him, but Fincher actually gets us to feel that. The viewer is awash in a sensation both lonely and void. This turned some critics off, but Fincher here is always true to the material. At the time of the film’s release, criticism was heavy on the perception that Fincher had given the viewer no one to root for. Nicholas Van Orton was a prick, yeah? And who wants to spend two hours with an asshole? But was Fincher’s decision to keep the unpalatable aspects of Michael Douglas’s character in the best interest of his material? I say yes. It is a much stronger choice to let a character act true to his nature than act the way the audience would like him to. Fincher does not ingratiate, does not pander. And certain critics shallowly assume that by the end, Nick Van Orton has learned the meaning of true happiness and joy, even though I don’t see much in the film itself to support that hypothesis.
Okay, I honestly understand why some would interpret the film this way. Van Orten’s game begins with a leaky pen staining his shirt. Then his briefcase won’t open. Eventually, his bank accounts are drained and he is drugged and left for dead in Mexico. He gives up his father’s watch to get back to the US. To get a ride back to San Francisco, he resorts to begging like a vagabond. Every external display of his identity and every status symbol is slowly ripped away until he has no frame of reference for himself anymore. Eventually, CRS leads him to shoot his brother; at this point, he is so far gone he feels compelled to kill himself. It’s an oft-filmed theme and story structure, but I think Fincher subverts the payoff.
This is the last one-shot of Van Orten in the film:
Maybe some critics saw something I missed, but he doesn’t look like George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life to me.
And this is the film’s final shot:
If things are wrapped up so neatly, why do we leave the main character again in the world of nocturnal neon? It’s like Capra leaving George Bailey in the Bizarro Bedford Falls. And I’m sure it means nothing that Fincher closes this shot with Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”…
Critics also rolled their eyes at the tidiness with which (they thought) Fincher wrapped up the surface plot of The Game. How could CRS have known Van Orton would jump off the building at that very spot?
‘X’ most definitely marks the spot. …Mission accomplished?
In fact, Van Orten seems to do everything just right, doesn’t he? ‘Plot holes abound!’ critics declared. But I believe they were viewing the film quite superficially. Let’s start with this: exactly what is “The Game” anyway? Who is playing it? While the film is set up to make you believe Nicholas Van Orten has been given an elaborate game to play, this really doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. He never seems to be ‘playing,’ does he?
From Wikipedia: ‘Play refers to a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities that are normally associated with pleasure and enjoyment.’ Does anything in The Game‘s world seem very voluntary? True, Nicholas goes to CRS in the first place, but without knowing anything about it. Van Orten doesn’t seem to have much free will at all—this is not Fight Club, where you ‘choose your own level of involvement.’ He is ‘playing’ whether he wishes to or not. Is there a single circumstance where Van Orten’s actions seem to affect the game at all, or its outcome? Because it seems to me that one outcome was written before ‘gameplay’ began. There’s even a picture of his fallen father in the clown’s mouth at one point, blatantly revealing the endgame.
Again, looking at Wikipedia’s definition, do his actions really seem intrinsically motivated? Based upon what I see, everything Van Orten does in the film is a guided reaction against (CRS’s) external pressure. ‘Reaction’ is an appropriate word, since Van Orton cannot be said to take any action, not really. Fincher’s images in the beginning set up the possibility that Nicholas’s conduct is being guided somehow, and Nicholas’s path does seem eerily supernaturally governed. (The screenwriters missed an opportunity to add a golden marketing line; at one point, Michael Douglas could have screamed at the camera, “I’m not playing a game here! The game’s playing me!” Actually, it’s probably better that they didn’t.)
Except, it’s clearly not supernatural. Whether moving money around with other Masters of the Universe, or running from a dog in a Chinatown back alley, The Game just manipulates Van Orten’s base survival instincts in such a way to lead to a perfectly predictable (to CRS, not the audience) conclusion. This is what Fincher is saying: Apply exactly the right pressure, and you can make anyone do precisely anything. We are pathetically tractable, whether we want to admit it or not.
Yet, you can enjoy this film only at the level of plot. It’s very entertaining in that regard. Fincher doesn’t push you to see more than you want. But there is much to mine, if your eyes are open.
The Game is an overlooked masterpiece in David Fincher’s oeuvre that deserves re-evaluation. Kubrick, I feel, would look upon Fincher’s filmography with high regard. If ever there was a worthy embodiment of my favourite director’s cinematic philosophy, Fincher is it.
(Author’s note: a version of this essay previously appeared on my personal blog. It has been revised and updated for inclusion on Film Misery.)
Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 8
In September 2012, the Criterion Collection released the director approved edition of director David Fincher’s The Game (1997) on BD and DVD. The package features an essay by David Sterritt, Chairman of the National Society of Film Critics.
Director David Fincher’s oft-forgotten The Game (1995) was notably released between his breakthrough hit, Se7en (1995), and the cinephile favorite, Fight Club (1999). Together, I believe this series represents a unique period in Fincher’s career when he made his most interesting films. Not coincidentally, and unlike his work of the next decade, the screenplays for these three films were not drafted by proven Hollywood writers. (At that point, the pinnacle for The Game co-writers David Bancato and Michael Ferris was The Net (1995).)
In one of Fincher’s best casting choices ever, Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a bottom-lining investment banker whose wife has left him some time ago and whose brother Conrad (Sean Penn) is his only family. At the beginning of the film, we learn that Nicholas is turning 48, and his father committed suicide by jumping to his death on the same birthday when Nicholas was a child. His younger brother – the black sheep of the family – gives him a gift certificate for Consumer Recreation Services (CRS) and promises the experience of his lifetime. Nicholas would not have bothered, but the next day just happens to find himself in the lobby of the CRS building and decides to take his brother up on the offer. Much to Nicholas’ dismay, his initial visit ultimately includes a day-long battery of psychological profiling and physical testing, after which the executive with CRS presents him with an agreement where Nicholas acknowledges and consents to play along with the “experiential book of the month club” from which he can drop out at any time. CRS seems to be too bureaucratic and disorganized to cause Nicholas concern. But the “game” ends up being quite an unexpected ride. And by the time we get to the last 10 minutes of the film, it seems to Nicholas and to the viewer that CRS really consists of a group of savvy conspirators who – armed with an army of actors and special effects – are financially exploiting the ultra-wealthy/ultra-bored. For some viewers, Nicholas’ just desserts might just resonate more in 2012 than it did in 1997.
But then come those last 10 minutes. As the cover of the Criterion Collection DVD shows and the flashback sequences in the prologue anticipate, Nicholas succumbs to despair upon learning that he just shot his brother by accident. He walks to the edge of the building and right off, falling dozens of stories – only to crash through a ceiling of breakaway glass and into an inflated air bag where a birthday party with all his friends, enemies, and CRS employees are awaiting him. As his brother joins him in the ballroom (sporting a fake blood stain on his white jacket), we realize that Fincher’s tale is (as he puts it) a postmodern take on A Christmas Carol with Gordon Gekko as a stand-in for Ebenezer Scrooge.
One of the reasons I had not revisited the film in the last 15 years was the memory of being unimpressed with the ending. For me and for many other viewers, it seemed way too convenient that of all the places Nicholas could have picked to jump off the building, CRS had planned so well for – not just a contingency, but an eventuality. For this same reason, I was drawn to the recent Criterion Collection release with the promise of an “alternate ending.” This alternate ending proved to be nothing more than a relatively inconsequential change in the final scene, but on second viewing, I did manage to notice the following image.
Not only does Nicholas happen to jump from the top of the building to land in a safe area, but he lands where an X literally marks the spot. At this point in an otherwise (arguably) earnest film, Fincher is clearly winking at the viewer. Not only has Nicholas been played by the game, but so have we. As essayist/critic David Sterritt points out, the film echoes The Wizard of Oz (1939), Vertigo (1958), and The Parallax View (1974) – sometimes both visually and textually. So on reconsideration, I believe Fincher is ultimately playing with audience expectations, as was the case with Se7en and Fight Club, and breaking the deal that the director strikes with viewers to suspend disbelief in exchange for a remotely plausible ending. Indeed, considering the very nature of the omnipresent CRS as a character in the film, The Game may work best as a meta-movie. Even so, the question remains – how effective is the film? Could this controversial ending simply be dismissed as sincere but ill-conceived? And does Fincher lose a portion of the audience by essentially rewarding an attempted suicide?
As one of the top grossing films of 1995, Se7en is so well executed that a passing fan could easily miss (or simply not care about) all the ways that it defies the conventions of the cop v. serial killer genre (e.g, turning of the idea of a Dirty Harry prototype as moral hero on its head). In the same vein as hyper-kinetic indies like Trainspotting (1996), Fight Club wore its satirical take on millennial-eve male pathos on its sleeve in both the narration and visual style. But The Game‘s connections to particular genre expectations are looser (IMDB says “Drama-Mystery-Thriller”), and in this respect, the film might just be too smart for it’s own good.