There was a long stretch, particularly after the empty whiz-bang bravura of Panic Room (2002), when I felt instinctively leery of anything directed by David Fincher. This attitude changed completely with Zodiac (2007), one of the great American films so far this century; Zodiac made me reconsider everything of Fincher’s, both before and after. So along comes Criterion’s new DVD and Blu-ray release of The Game (1997), and I’m very interested, even though I remember feeling underwhelmed by the film upon its debut. It remains in my estimation a work that’s far from Fincher’s most accomplished, either in terms of his command of craft or thematic heft. It isn’t the most serious or elegant or arresting of Fincher’s movies, but it is immensely intriguing—the set-up is the best piece of this puzzle—entertaining, and possesses several elements that bounce nicely against those in Fincher’s other films, right from those opening home movies, which feature eerie ghost faces from the past and flicker with the promise of something vaguely sinister, looking forward to the haunting flashbacks in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011).
The Game’s protagonist is the obscenely affluent, cold-hearted, megalomaniac, controlling, toxically lonesome investment banker Nicholas Van Orton, played by Michael Douglas, by then the Hollywood embodiment of white American wealth and guilt—and Van Orton’s secretary’s grooming is conspicuously similar to that of Alex, Douglas’ femme fatale in Fatal Attraction (1987). For his 48th birthday Van Orton’s long-estranged little brother (Sean Penn) gives him a gift certificate for some mystery service rendered by a company called CRS. They promise their clients an undefined but singular experience, the fulfillment of desires you didn’t even know you had, some sort of adventure full of revitalizing thrills—the promise of the movies, in other words, but delivered as something overwhelming and experiential. Van Orton only knows his game has started when he finds clowns in his driveway and the TV news starts speaking directly to him. Soon he’s running from guard dogs, going through a lot of monogrammed shirts, having unnerving encounters with a clumsy but very attractive waitress with an aversion to panties (Canada’s own Deborah Kara Unger), escaping from drowning cabs, and watching his offshore accounts become suddenly, inexplicably drained. Suddenly everything that happens in the world is happening to him. Whether intentional or not, one of the ironies of The Game is that while its meant to humble the nasty, self-absorbed and insulated Van Orton, it actually only accentuates the feeling that he really is the center of the universe.
Parts of The Game feel too fussed over; there’s more incident than feels necessary, too many cutaways, too much overly indicative atonal piano-tinkle scoring, and too many low-angle shots of Van Orton’s car. Indeed, in the audio commentary accompanying Criterion’s disc, Fincher confesses that parts of the film are much cuttier than he would have liked. But there’s no denying that the film clips along: it is a veritable suspense machine. It’s easy to imagine Hitchcock being attracted to this material. It’s like a Wrong Man movie except that the hero is unmistakably the Right Man, the target of so much mega-financed, vertiginous mischief. There’s a darkness under all this—Van Orton’s father was 48 when he suicided, and it seems possible that Van Orton may follow in dad’s footsteps—but that darkness evaporates under the cheerful glow of the film’s risible but not inappropriate resolution. Van Orton is offered a fresh, if far more modest proposition in The Game’s closing scene. We leave Van Orton in a moment in decision, starting over, newly shaken awake, ready for a future of tantalizing uncertainty. And we leave Fincher on the verge of a period of uncertainty with regards to his career path, still some years away from mastering his own destiny.