What do you get the man who has everything? Or perhaps, more importantly, how do you get back at the man who has everything? David Fincher explains in The Game (1997); a psychological jigsaw puzzle that places a seemingly complacent businessman’s comfortable existence in imminent peril. Until its final moments, The Game remains a boldly seductive, perversely cryptic thriller from which there is no easy escape for its protagonist and no simple resolution for the audience. We are asked to believe in a terrible fate perpetuated on this man, Nicholas Van Orten (Michael Douglas) by his only brother, Conrad (Sean Penn) who has seemingly decided to destroy Nicholas’ life with the offering of a ‘gift’ on his 48th birthday.
The gift is the game; a terrifying bit of roleplaying that dismantles the world of reality and threatens to swallow our hero whole into its nightmarish – and frankly, Hitchcockian - alter universe where nothing is as it seems and no one is either safe or to be trusted. Fate is a brutal mistress, resolved to humble this man who once believed in nothing except himself. But the more Nicholas plays the game, the more he comes to realize his disregard for human frailty has suddenly conspired against him; stripping bare his own identity. It’s a cruel and paralytic realization; that without his money and briefcase he is naked, exposed and at the mercy of these sinister and omnipotent outside forces.
Yet The Game is not a tale of sibling rivalry. On the contrary, the rivalry between Nicholas and Conrad – parted by money, class and professional distinction – is otherwise present only in Nicholas’ mind; his inability to move beyond the memory of their father’s suicide (ironically also at the age of 48) committed during Nicholas’ sixth birthday party. Indeed, Nicholas’ entire life, his very fiber of being and behaviors since, his incapacity to connect with people in general and his ex-wife in particular, is anchored to this gnawing and nagging legacy of childhood betrayal. Viewed in this context Conrad’s ‘gift’ - ‘the game’ - is very much both an offering made out of love and a desperate rescue intervention, though it will take Nicholas Van Orten the better half of two hours to realize just how fortunate and blessed he truly is.
Fincher begins his tale with some distressed 16mm footage presumably taken during Nicholas’ (Scott Hunter-MacGuire) ill-fated 6th birthday. We see the boy with his father (Charles Martinet); neither having a particularly good time despite the lavish party accoutrements and glittering roster of moneyed guests who have come to spoil the child at the behest of his father. Shots of the party in full swing are interpolated with brief glimpses of the late Van Orten leaping to his death from the rooftop of the family estate and the discovery of his body lying in a pool of blood near the front steps.
From here, the John Brancato/Michael Ferris screenplay jumps ahead to the present. Nicholas is preparing for just another day at his office, as emotionlessly uninvolved and condescending to his underlings; his maid Ilsa (Carroll Baker), and secretary, Maria (Elizabeth Dennehy). But Nicholas’s luck – or perhaps, more astutely, his fate – is about to change with Conrad’s impromptu visit to Nicholas’ exclusive club. Conrad gives Nicholas an invitation to CRS – Consumer Recreational Services. But Nicholas’ inquiry about the game is met with a riddle: for figuring out the game is the game.
Nicholas reluctantly agrees to indulge Conrad’s gift after making a few casual inquiries with former participants. He arrives at CRS’s San Francisco offices and is instructed by the company’s rather goony manager, Jim Feingold (James Reborn) to undergo a litany of psychological and aptitude tests to assess his capabilities. However, a few days later Nicholas is informed that his application has been rejected. This, of course, is a lie because Nicholas’ game has already begun. After the stressful dismissal of Anson Baer (Armin Mueller-Stahl) a publisher who worked for Nicholas’ father, Nicholas decides to return to his club to blow off some steam. But from this moment on, rest and relaxation will not be in the cards.
Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), a waitress at the club (or is she?) dumps a pitcher of juice in Nicholas’ lap and is fired for her ‘incompetence’ by the club’s manager. Shortly thereafter, Nicholas is given a cryptic hand written message by a waiter that instructs him to follow Christine into the street. A total stranger collapses in from of them, presumably dying from anaphylactic shock. Nicholas telephones the paramedics who ask that he and Christine accompany the victim to the hospital to fill out some forms. However, once in the underground parking lot, the emergency room goes dark and the patients and attending physicians disappear in the blink of an eye.
At first unable to believe what has happened, Nicholas regroups and explains to Christine that it’s all part of the game. She pretends not to understand and Nicholas pursues her into a waiting elevator. Their car stops in CRS’s lobby, setting off the night alarm and forcing Nicholas and Christine to flee the scene. The two are chased by police and an attack dog, narrowly escaping both by climbing scaffolding in a back alley before making their way to Nicholas’ office building to clean up from their escapade.
Parting company as friends, Nicholas returns home to find a body lying slumped over in his driveway in much the same way he recalls finding his father’s remains when he was only a child. This time, however, the corpse turns out to be a clown, and Nicholas drags it into his living room. The toy is actually a camera that monitors Nicholas’ every move and even allows him to interact with Daniel Schorr’s nightly news broadcast. Schorr forewarns Nicholas that this is only the beginning.
True to this prophecy, Nicholas is told by his secretary that he has left his credit card at the Plaza Hotel. However, when he arrives to collect it from the concierge Nicholas is informed that a room has already been rented in his name. The suite is in a shambles, its furnishings overturned, porn playing on the bedroom TV, lines of cocaine laid out on the coffee table and Poloroids strewn everywhere, suggesting a kinky sexual encounter having taken place the night before. In his attempt to clean up this disaster Nicholas cuts his hand on a piece of glass, thereby leaving behind his DNA at the scene.
With his attorney Samuel Sutherland (Peter Donat) present, Nicholas confronts Baer in front of his wife and daughter, assuming that he is behind the set up. Instead, Baer politely thanks Nicholas for his dismissal, having already signed off on his generous severance package. Embarrassed, Nicholas departs the scene. Conrad returns, at first to apologize to Nicholas for involving him in the game. Conrad rants about how CRS has perpetuated an extortion and blackmail. Nicholas tells Conrad he is paranoid. But when Conrad finds keys with the CRS logo stashed inside Nicholas’ glove compartment he accuses Nicholas of being part of the game before running away.
Nicholas’ attempt to hail a cab leads to even more peril when the cabbie (Tommy Flanagan) locks him in the backseat before indulging in a harrowing high speed drive through the abandoned streets that ends with the car ditched in the bay. Narrowly escaping drowning, Nicholas returns home hours later, only to discover that his estate has been vandalized with glow in the dark graffiti. Reuniting with Christine at her home, Nicholas is encouraged by his reluctant host to have a drink while she goes into the other room to dress. But Christine’s home is really just ‘a set’ and set up – as it turns out - for an assassination attempt that leaves both Nicholas and Christine fleeing for their lives once again. Nicholas drives Christine to his cabin in the woods where he begins to deconstruct all that has happened to him since beginning ‘the game’. Christine warns that CRS will stop at nothing to destroy him, first financially, and then physically.
A quick scan of his computer reveals that CRS has liquidated Nicholas’ entire fortune, but a frantic call to Samuel suggests otherwise. Christine convinces Nicholas that Samuel is in on ‘the game’ and tells him to hang up the phone. All too late Nicholas discovers that Christine is also part of the deception. She has drugged him with tainted coffee. The next morning Nicholas awakens inside a tomb in a Mexican cemetery. Penniless and seemingly friendless, he telephones his ex-wife Elizabeth (Anna Katerina) who, it has been suggested earlier, he treated appallingly during their marriage, but who continues to harbor a soft spot for him despite having remarried some time ago.
After learning that Jim Feingold is really just an actor, Nicholas borrows Elizabeth’s car to hunt Jim down at the zoo. With a pistol taken from his home, Nicholas demands that Jim lead him to CRS’s headquarters where Nicholas attempts to take Christine hostage. Once inside the main lobby, Nicholas begins to realize that virtually all of the people he has encountered since the game began are actors working for CRS and waiting for his return. Guards open gunfire and Nicholas races to the rooftop with Christine, demanding answers and threatening to kill her if she fails to explain the truth. Christine tells Nicholas that Conrad has been behind the whole elaborate hoax, expressly engineered as part of his birthday celebration.
Believing this to be just another one of her lies, Nicholas points the gun at the locked door being broken down and fires his piece first. His bullet hits Conrad in the stomach, who is dressed in a tuxedo and holding a champagne bottle. Realizing that Christine was finally telling the truth, but unable to face the idea that he has probably murdered his own brother, Nicholas leaps from the rooftop, presumably to his death. His fall, however, is softened by some breakaway glass and a large inflatable mat situated in the middle of a ballroom where guests have been patiently anticipating Nicholas’ planned arrival. Conrad hurries into the room to prove to Nicholas that his gun was full of squibs and blanks. Nothing’s real. No one died. It’s all been part of the game.
Forever changed by the experience of nearly having lost everything to his own complacency, a more repentant and contrite Nicholas emerges from the experiment. After the party, Nicholas approaches Christine to inquire if she might agree to see him socially, now that their roleplaying has finally come to an end. The film ends before she can give her reply, leaving an open ended question of whether the game is still being played on an even more subliminal and perverse level.
For the most part, The Game is a delectably deviant excursion. There has never been another film quite like it, not even from David Fincher whose view of modern society is born from a desperate need to connect in a sea of isolationism. Like all of Fincher’s variations on this theme, The Game greatly benefits from Harris Savides’ moody cinematography; stark and occasionally almost monochromatic. Michael Douglas gives another great performance as the monolithic executive whose sense of self is torn apart and then put back together for the better. Sean Penn’s role is practically a cameo, but he makes the absolute most of his brief scenes and is an indelible presence. Deborah Kara Unger provides solid support as his manipulative accomplice.
At long last Criterion gives us The Game in a transfer worthy of the film. For nearly two decades fans have had to contend with the now defunct Polygram non-anamorphic transfer, riddled in excessive artifacts and a barrage of edge enhancement that made the experience of viewing The Game a real challenge to say the least. The Criterion effort is only 2k resolution – a minor sticking point but one I continue to find quite unacceptable from Criterion, given that 4k hi-res imaging has recently given way to 6 and even 8k mastering in the hi-def marketplace.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this 2k scan. In fact, it’s quite good, capturing a lot of fine detail even from Savides’ low key lighting and cinematography that deliberately strains the eye. The stylized color palette is perfectly preserved. It’s difficult to assess accuracy of flesh tones, but suffice it to say this transfer is very film like and will surely not disappoint. Contrast is solid and grain appears quite natural. Good stuff. The 5.1 DTS audio is strikingly aggressive in spots. Dialogue is clean and clear.
Extras – thank heaven: an audio commentary that is fairly comprehensive and a good listen besides. We also get an alternate ending, the psychological test film footage, some behind the scenes junkets and film-to-storyboard comparisons, plus the film’s teaser and trailer. David Sterritt’s booklet essay is rather short but nevertheless provides some good information for the casual reader. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)