Skip to main content

I'm being toyed with by a bunch of depraved children.

The Game
(1997)

(SPOILERS) It’s fair to suggest that David Fincher has had an up-and-down career. No one blamed him for Alien³ going pear-shaped (although, the stylistic choices in it are straight-up his and many are downright lousy). But by the end of the 90s, with Seven and Fight Club to his name, he had firmly established auteurish credentials, with a yen for dark, edgy material boasting that rarity: smart thematic content. In between those two, there’s the rather forgotten The Game. Unfortunately, it turns out this was the real harbinger for his later career: a shallow film that desperately wants to mean something more.

Because what did Fincher then do, post-Fight Club? He spent nigh-on two decades paddling about the shallow end of the content pool, noodling over serial killers and serial killers and more serial killers. Admittedly, one of those (Zodiac) is a great film, but when he tried to spread his genre net wider (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) he rather confirmed he lacked the requisite emotional palate. Yes, there’s The Social Network too, underlining his affinity for sociopaths, and in many respects, he knocks that one out of the park. Except that it also betrays him as a stone-cold propagandist, willing to undertake the kind of whitewashing Hollywood is famous for (see also Oliver Stone with his post-JFK career). You’re not going to check out The Social Network seriously if you nurse suspicions that Facebook is a CIA tool (which isn’t even a controversial view) or that Mark Zuckerberg is a Rockefeller (a touch more rabbit hole-ish, admittedly).

Now, I’m not suggesting Fincher doesn’t make entertaining movies, far from it. I’ve enjoyed everything he’s done, to a greater or lesser extent (The Game is definitely lesser). But he is far from the Kubrick his meticulous, pain-staking attention to detail would suggest. Indeed, his scrappy eye for genre material is much closer to Hitchcock; Panic Room, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl (insisting on Dragon Tattoo, after the whole Stieg Larsson craze had peaked also evidenced an off-zeitgeist streak that included his never-quite-there House of Cards remake and a failed bid to do the same with Utopia, itself a cancelled series, even if it’s currently receiving a fresh wave of conspirasphere/predictive programming attention off the back of the US version seeing the light of day, sans Fincher).

With The Game, you wonder why he ever thought the premise would work, and it seems his wife Ceán Chaffin knew better that it wouldn’t, telling him “Don’t make The Game, and in hindsight, my wife was right. We didn’t figure out the third act, and it was my fault, because I thought if you could just keep your foot on the throttle it would be liberating and funny”.

Fincher throws out references to the picture’s Kafkaesque qualities and the Scrooge journey of Michael Douglas’ Nicholas van Orton, but they feel like he is clutching at straws, and only really serve to emphasise just how shallow the entire affair is. The Game is a one-joke movie stretched to breaking point (well over two hours, and it really feels it). We’re told early on, when Nicholas visits Consumer Recreation Services (CRS) at the behest of his misspent brother Conrad (Sean Penn), that this is a game. So it shouldn’t be a great surprise at the end when everything – Nicholas’ life being turn upside down, losing everything, killing his brother and himself – turns out to be exactly that, albeit extremely elaborately and ludicrously so.

I found the film engaging enough on first viewing, because it is, as you’d expect, incredibly well made. The ending, obviously, is a credulity-tester too far (as Fincher noted, when Nicholas walks off ledge “People just got up and said fuck this movie” – I’m not sure if he means they said that after he gets up from the fall or not, but that would be a better-timed response). Fincher had it that CRS had in their minds numerous backup plans for any unlikely situation Nick got himself into, but even if you’re willing to run with this absurdity – is it a coincidence or purposeful irony that a director known for his rigour should tackle a tale that tests the limits of logic; perhaps it was in his head as a test of whether he could pull it off – the picture has negligible rewatch value.

There are cute details, such as CRS having determined Nicholas will throw himself off the roof during a twenty-one-minute window at the outset, making the whole affair a case of something of a study in determinism. One might make a claim the picture’s elaborate conceit of a staged personal reality is a commentary on our elaborately staged group paradigm. But still, that doesn’t make it any more interesting. The best Shyamalan efforts have decent character work to boost them beyond the mere twist attraction. The Game has nothing, making a revisit mostly a chore. It’s all about the payoff.

In that regard, the film is the complete opposite of Fight Club (which also features a fake-out rejection of joining the reality-skewing club/game). It also has a reveal twist later used by the Coen Brothers in Intolerable Cruelty (an actor used for the scam is seen by the protagonist on TV – in Intolerable Cruelty it’s Billy Bob Thornton in a TV soap with Bruce Campbell). Douglas had carved himself out a niche of middle-aged assholes by this point, honing them during the previous decade; he occasionally manages to lighten the tone with some comic mugging, but you’re not interested in Nicholas; he isn’t even an interesting prick.

Fincher was working from a screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris (of The Net; a form of the Game had previously been mooted by Jonathan Mostow starring Kyle McLachlan). It was punched up by Larry Gross and Kevin Andrew Walker; clearly the director thought he could overlay meaning and enrich the basic plot template. And there are readings of the picture suggesting it has a fertile subtext. Which it may do (after all, Fincher loves his dark shit). That still doesn’t make it a decent dramatic work, though. A comparison might be Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s meditation on secret societies/the Elite, with which this shares a similarly eerie piano motif. That picture doesn’t have an awful lot of plot, and it is also desperately extended. And yet, it’s mesmerising in the way only Kubrick can be. The Game is full of flash and fireworks, but it’s near-soporific once you’ve seen it the once.

CRS: We provide… whatever is lacking.

Mention of Eyes Wide Shut is not coincidental, since there’s a reasonably solid argument, made by Isaac Weishaupt, that The Game is really all about initiation into secret societies. A major precept of such groups is passing through a death and rebirth process (“a profound life experience” as CRS advertises itself). This happens twice to Nicholas, first overtly when he is buried in a Mexican cemetery and then in the form of his final attempted suicide. Nicholas initially thinks Connie is “in one of those personal improvement cults or something” but by the end he is a convert, through the miracle of a Christmas Carol-like conversion to being a nice person (gaining forgiveness from his ex and Armin Mueller-Stahl’s competitor, who conveniently thanks him for being forced into early retirement). There’s also a vaguely Job-ian vibe of the sufferer restored. Although, that would make CRS, the eye at the top of the pyramid in Weishaupt’s reading (you never see who pulls the strings), God.

Nicholas: I don't care about the money. I'm pulling back the curtain. I want to meet the wizard.

The Faustian pact here is mockingly referenced when Nicholas completes the form (“Initials. Initials. And Sign there. In blood. Just kidding”). Weishaupt notes the layering of John 29:5 (“Once I was blind but now I can see”) as a Luciferian reference “because that’s what arguably all these secret societies are into, the wisdom of Lucifer opening their eyes… you will be like gods, knowing good and evil. There you go. And it’s the reference to the pineal gland, the third eye, the all-seeing eye all the same reference here. And they put it in this sort of subdued inverted reality that only the initiates understand”.

Nicholas: You could have pictures of me with a nipple butt-fucking Captain Kangaroo. The only thing they are about is whether the stock is up or down.

There are points in The Game where this sense of a layered reality, of peeling them back to find different truths under the surface, are hinted at tantalisingly. Nicholas attempting to get the lowdown from “adepts” who have been there before him (“I took the test today”) has the vibe of rich masonic smoking club. The test itself is clearly inspired by the genuinely unsettling one in The Parallax View, so carrying with it hints of MKUltra programming. Nicholas’ confrontation with Mueller-Stahl’s Anson Baer, incorrectly assuming the photos of him and Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) are Baer’s blackmail, is obviously a reference to the manner in which the rich and famous are leveraged for continued cooperation. And his entrance to his graffitied mansion to the sound of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit is incredibly on-the-nose (he’s following Christine’s Rabbit) but nevertheless highly impactful.

The dressing of Nicholas haunted by the death of his father at 48 on his own 48th birthday also strives for resonance. Nicholas’ birthday is October 11 (11:11 being a call to higher purpose, traditionally, and a range of interpretations of 11 itself, good and bad and somewhere in between). Meanwhile, the Earth /man is subjected to 48 laws according to the likes of Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, and Samael Aun Weor. I also saw reference to the number “calling us to renounce ourselves to the “worldly” things and seek selflessness”. Which about sums up Nicholas’ journey, if selflessness is being inducted to “their” cause.

There are other common Fincher tics here. He’s big on surveillance, and it’s all over the picture, almost to The Truman Show levels. Well, it’s the same film in some respects, except that one, broadly, works, and one, broadly, doesn’t. Notably, Jodie Foster was lined up to play Nicholas’ sister but she wanted the part changed to daughter; director and star nixed her (she’s two years younger than Penn). Penn trots out an autopilot sleazy Penn performance, but he’s as solid as only someone leveraged for continued cooperation in real life can be. James Rebhorn is probably most solid. There are definitely pictures that reveal a whole new value from a textured read. Unfortunately, The Game still just isn’t very good.
 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

A ship is the finest nursery in the world.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) (SPOILERS) An odd one, this, as if Disney were remaking The Swiss Family Robinson for adults. One might perhaps have imagined the Mouse House producing it during their “Dark Disney” phase. But even then, toned down. After all, kids kidnapped by pirates sounds like an evergreen premise for boy’s own adventuring (more girl’s own here). The reality of Alexander Mackendrick’s film is decidedly antithetical to that; there’s a lingering feeling, despite A High Wind in Jamaica ’s pirates largely observing their distance, that things could turn rather nasty (and indeed, if Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel  had been followed to the letter, they would have more explicitly). 

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

Duffy. That old tangerine hipster.

Duffy (1968) (SPOILERS) It’s appropriate that James Coburn’s title character is repeatedly referred to as an old hipster in Robert Parrish’s movie, as that seemed to be precisely the niche Coburn was carving out for himself in the mid to late 60s, no sooner had Our Man Flint made him a star. He could be found partaking in jaundiced commentary on sexual liberation in Candy, falling headlong into counter culture in The President’s Analyst , and leading it in Duffy . He might have been two decades older than its primary adherents, but he was, to repeat an oft-used phrase here, very groovy. If only Duffy were too.

Just wait. They’ll start listing side effects like the credits at the end of a movie.

Contagion  (2011) (SPOILERS) The plandemic saw Contagion ’s stock soar, which isn’t something that happens too often to a Steven Soderbergh movie. His ostensibly liberal outlook has hitherto found him on the side of the little people (class action suits) and interrogating the drugs trade while scrupulously avoiding institutional connivance (unless it’s Mexican institutional connivance). More recently, The Laundromat ’s Panama Papers puff piece fell fall flat on its face in attempting broad, knowing satire (in some respects, this is curious, as The Informant! is one of Soderbergh’s better-judged films, perhaps because it makes no bones about its maker’s indifference towards its characters). There’s no dilution involved with Contagion , however. It amounts to a bare-faced propaganda piece, serving to emphasise that the indie-minded director is Hollywood establishment through and through. This is a picture that can comfortably sit alongside any given Tinseltown handwringing over the Wa