David Fincher’s The Game is a fine thriller, but its exact point remains unclear. The plot is fairly simple. Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a wealthy but detached investment banker, is given a strange birthday gift by his brother Conrad (Sean Penn); originally, I believe Jodie Foster was supposed to be “Connie.” The gift is a seemingly harmless fantasy offered by Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Reluctant at first, Van Orton eventually agrees to go to CRS and takes some bizarre psychological and physical examinations. He is later told that his application has been rejected but, in fact, the game has begun. Later still, Van Orton encounters a pretty waitress Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) who may be as much a victim as he is in the game.
At the level of logic, The Game can be faulted for asking too much of its audience. The near-omniscience of CRS in anticipating Van Orton’s every move seems a bit too much. This, however, may mistake the point of the film. The car chases and moments of peril are generated masterfully, but one suspects that the surface of the thriller is a mere pretense to tell another story. Another way of understanding The Game is as trial-by-fire picture in which Van Orton has to rediscover, painfully, not only life as a commoner, but also mere survival. The film can be faulted, if anything, for not being extreme enough since Van Orton appears unhappy yet tied to some human relationships.
Slowly but steadily, Van Orton has to realize that he has only himself to depend on and try to gather the necessary strength to get out of the nightmare he’s plunged into. In terms of direction, Fincher superbly sets up the rules of the game and provides a beautiful landscape that Douglas has to manage. Still, as a puzzle, the film suffers by comparison to similar attempts at questioning the line between fantasy and reality. As characters go, Van Orton is a familiar archetype and assured acting by all the players gives the piece a strong vibrancy; especially Unger’s sexy and witty role as both victim and fellow protagonist. Even a dedicated filmgoer may be pleasantly surprised at some of the avenues the game takes.
The problem Fincher has is not in providing a superior form of entertainment. Van Orton’s epiphany that comes at the conclusion is certainly powerful, but one can’t help but wonder what else the film is trying to say. At times, the Scrooge-like allusions are too blatant to miss. But the exact social lessons or even philosophical worries that we’re supposed to be preoccupied with are left unclear. The early parts of the film featuring a freakish clown are never fully fleshed out, nor is the necessity of Van Orton discovering “keys” to complete his journey.
Fincher’s other films (Se7en, Fight Club) often target very potent subjects, but the existential trauma that sustains The Game is too thin. Van Orton’s father committed suicide at the same age that his birthday signals and he fears he is merely reenacting his father’s depression. But not much background is given about himself or his father or Conrad, which is odd, since such scenes could easily have been included without damaging the turn of events the film delves into later. One might sense that Van Orton’s flashbacks to his father in The Game come off as too forced and merely provide the film with some identifiable cause for propelling him forward.
Essentially, then, Fincher’s film can either be seen as promising but needing careful retreading, or as a satisfying if ultimately hollow exercise in thrill making. It’s doubtful that The Game will be remembered as being in the same league as The Matrix. Yet this seems a poor assessment since Fincher’s film is far more cohesive and mature than either The Matrix or its many clones. It deserves a wide audience for the intriguing constructions on display but not much else. It might have been more interesting to simply subject Van Orton to a living hell and leave much of the explaining on the cutting room floor.