Revisiting David Fincher’s The Game

Don't read this if you haven't seen David Fincher's mind-screwing follow-up to Seven. A decade later, though, does the film work?

Michael Douglas in The Game

Thanks to a magazine promotion at the time, I first got to see The Game at a preview screening a week or two before it was released. This, it turned out, was a good thing. I had no idea what it was about, and was non-plussed about the film going in, to the point where, just before we left the house to go and see it, my better half and I discussed just going for a drink instead. The pull of David Fincher’s name on the credits got us in the car, though, and a few hours’ later, it was very clear we’d made the right choice.

The Game was Fincher’s follow-up to the remarkable Seven (sorry, can’t write it with the number 7 replacing the ‘V’. I don’t have it in me), and seemed at first to be an odd choice to follow it up with. It stars Michael Douglas as Nicholas Van Orton, a man who, in the first portion of the film, we’re introduced to as a less showy, even colder and very lonely Gordon Gekko-esque figure. He’s an investment banker who lives alone, in the shadow of his father’s suicide at the age of 48. When Van Orton himself hits 48, his brother – played, in a relatively brief cameo, by Sean Penn – buys him a special gift, from a mysterious company called CRS. The present is a game, specifically tailored around Van Orton himself.

Intrigue soon gets the better of him, and a supposedly chance discovery of the company in the foyer of a building that he’s visiting leads Van Orton to sign up. And after a day of form filling and checks, he’s ultimately turned down. Only, as anyone has seen the film will appreciate, that’s when things start to turn upside down a little.

When I first sat through the film, the ending – inevitably its main talking point – I thought was just brilliant. It was simple, logical, yet brilliant to the point of making the audience I was watching it with laugh out loud, and give it a small smattering of applause. But it’s also an ending that, I’d assumed, means that The Game is a dish you can only really enjoy once. I rented the VHS six months after the cinema release, and very much found that to be the case. Sure, there are clues you can pick up on the way to the denouement, but remove the fact that you don’t know what’s going on and the film proved much weaker for it.

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Thanks to one of the many HD DVD fire sales that have been taking place across the web over the past year (hey, I’ve got to use the player for something…), I picked up a copy of The Game earlier in the year for a few quid, and it’s been near the top of my must-rewatch pile for some time (Boogie Nights next, can’t wait…!). So last night, it got its chance.

It certainly helps to have been away from the film for the best part of a decade, too, as I found myself really, really enjoyed the set-up. The establishing of Douglas’ character is done extremely well, and the shadowy CRS is likewise presented with an underlying hint of menace. I particularly loved bits like the casual conversation about CRS in the locker that Douglas’ character overhears: contextualised against the ending, it was fun to revisit some of the clues as to what was going to follow. Likewise, little elements such as a waiter leaving a note on Van Orton’s table then pegging it, and a creepy clown with a camera in its eye, really do build up the tension. I was surprised just how much I was still dragged into it all.

Thus, for the first two thirds of the movie, I find myself enveloped in it. Fincher is an excellent director, and The Game is arguably his lowest profile film, but he turns in some outstanding work here, and it’s hard not to be pulled in by his storytelling. But where he takes his eye off the ball is in the final act, which simply drags things on far too much. I remember this from the first time I saw the film, too. The nigh-on 130 minute running time is too long, and the protracted build-up to the ending does The Game no favours at all.

But still, the ending itself still does. You could debate whether it’s ballsy, honest, audacious or cheating a little bit. I’d pick one out of the first three there, because looking back, The Game tells you what it’s doing all along, it just plays on movie conventions that leave you to simply not believe when a film is telling you the truth. If there’s a highlight moment to the film, one where you just want to find Fincher and shake him warmly by the hand, it’s the moment where Van Orton stumbles into a canteen full of all of the people he’s been interacting with in the two hour running time that preceded it. That’s the point where, on initial viewing, The Game swung me back, and it has the same effect on a repeated viewing. And while it, inevitably, doesn’t have the same impact as it once did, you still can’t help but appreciate it.

One final word: Michael Douglas. This, for me, is his equivalent of something like Cast Away, where one actor has to shoulder the vast bulk of the work for most of the running time. Douglas is brilliant here, and reminds you of the edgy leading roles that defined his work across the 80s and 90s. It’s hard to call a man with a Best Actor gong on his mantelpiece underrated, but he’s certainly not given the recognition he deserves as one of the more interesting, three dimensional leading actors in Hollywood. It’s just a shame he doesn’t make that many films any more.

As for The Game? It’s not Fincher’s best, but it’s still a very good film, although nothing will beat the first time. It’s one, though, where you can’t help wondering if a shortened director’s cut of sorts (a la Spielberg with Close Encounters) could make it even better.

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