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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.
 

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