Monday, January 19, 2009
Written by: John Brancato and Michael Ferries
Directed by: David Fincher
I can't imagine anyone but David Fincher making this movie. He displayed with his preceding film Se7en (as well as his recent masterpiece Zodiac) an uncanny ability to twist ordinary crime procedurals that get driven further into the ground every week on CSI and various Law & Order spinoffs into taut, gripping thrillers. The Game follows such a pattern and, even though it does not quite enter into the top tier of Fincher's work, it remains an excellent film and one of the director's better works.
The basic theme of The Game is humility. The film opens on the extremely wealthy Nicholas Van Orten (Douglas), a successful businessman who got ahead in life by being relentlessly obsessive in his control of it. He adheres to schedules and runs a tight ship; the moment an employee fails to meet projections he finds himself on the street. For his 48th birthday, he meets with his carefree, recovering addict brother Conrad (Sean Penn), who gifts him with an application for a mysterious program called The Game.
To redeem his gift, Van Orten visits Consumer Recreations Services and meets with a shadowy man who entices the wary and meticulous Nicholas into agreeing to enter into The Game, despite offering no real details of what to expect. That night Nicholas returns home thinking about his father, who committed suicide on his own 48th birthday, and soon all hell breaks loose.
The consultant from CRS told Van Orten only that The Game offered "what is lacking" in the lives of its participants. Thus begins a steadily building series of chaos designed to knock Nicholas down a few pegs. First it starts slowly: his pen leaks, someone spills wine on his shirt, etc. Then it builds and builds into a frenzy that leaves the audience wondering if The Game is designed to humble Nicholas or outright kill him.
With a simple tweak this could have easily been a comedy. The lead could have overacted too soon, peaking emotionally before things got really tough, or the nature of The Game could have been too absurd. Indeed, most of their machinations are flat-out impossible or at least certainly improbable; after all, why go to all the trouble of draining bank accounts, taking assets, and even staging deaths just to teach someone a lesson?
Yet it's a testament both to Fincher's gift for pacing and Michael Douglas' subtlety that the exercise never devolves into farce. Douglas reacts as a man of his position would, with initial disbelief ever so slowly mounting into madness. There's a scene late in the film when Nicholas, broke and beaten, asks the patrons of a diner for a ride to San Fransico in a defeated tone that contains a tattered remnant of dignity that is his only tether to the life he knew. Few could have pulled this off as well as Douglas.
Also worth noting is the look of the film. As with Se7en, Fincher and his crew have crafted a terrifying, Gothic expressionist nightmare for the characters. This dreamscape makes the implausibilities of The Game (as well as John Doe's horrific crimes in Se7en) seem possible because if the world itself is off, who are we to say what can logically occur in it?
By the end of the film I felt as drained as Van Orten. Because Douglas keeps his madness largely behind his eyes and only lets on with the occasional look of panic or confusion I remained on the edge of my seat. Though the ending isn't as ambiguous as it might seem, it still makes you wonder.
Funnily enough, the film feels like a Gothic thriller version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Like Scrooge, Van Orten is a successful businessman who defines himself by his work and whose life is thrown into disarray by forces beyond his control -- the architects of The Game seem as supernatural as the Christmas ghosts. These forces conspire to improve their victim through horrors; Scrooge had to confront his troubled childhood and face a terrible future, while Nicholas must contend with losing everything. Though Nicholas may be more traumatized than enlightened by his experiences, he's finally been given an alternative to his way of living.
Overall, I'd name The Game as Fincher's fourth best, scarcely behind the triumvirate of his masterpieces Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac and ahead of his latest The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It's not quite perfect, but few thrillers grabbed me like this.