So Rod Serling, Charles Dickens, and Alfred Hitchcock walked into a bar…
And out comes David Fincher, with everything in the world to prove after his gangbusters Seven swerved him from “that guy who ruined Alien” (which he didn’t, but that’s for another time and place) to “among the hottest new talents in Hollywood”. In the aforementioned triangulation, Hitchcock undeniably wins out unsurprisingly: Fincher, a director who exercises a totalizing jurisprudence over his contraptions and machines, making a film about a man who is a version of himself is almost impossible to not carry with it a distant whiff of Hitchcockian baggage.
Avoiding equivocation, I’ll say that The Game is David Fincher’s most efficient film, which can be both a beacon and an albatross depending upon the interpretation. The story centers comically wealthy San Francisco banker Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), the platonic counterpoint to the free-wheeling hippie-dippy stereotypes of the city. The Game throttles him through a mysterious puzzle-box wherein vaguely – and then definitively – malevolent occurrences encircle him like robo-vultures. His sanity and life are tested and all that good stuff we expect when the name David Fincher enters the fray. The Game lacks the adolescent indiscretion of Fight Club, the prestige-pic catnip of The Social Network (and the prestige-pic garbage of Benjamin Button), or the deeply misjudged egotism of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a film that sacrifices potentially lurid genre trash on a slate-grey altar of unearned sobriety. Instead, this is the film of his that is most content to simply be a thriller, nothing more and nothing less.
Along with, say, Panic Room and Gone Girl, it is a basic exercise in genre mechanics, a palate cleanser that is impossible to mount a blitzkrieg against on craft levels. Harris Savides’ pristine cinematography warps a city that is nominally a beacon of positivity and liberation into a maladjusted malevolence of labyrinthine fullness that somehow only suggests emptiness. Howard Shore’s glassy, sharded score is all fractured angles and broken, piecemeal noises that disrupt the domesticity of life itself. Fincher is, as he always is, implacable and nearly maniacal in his crispness, even if his shot selection is mostly within the thriller rulebook. Expect deep-focus images that suggest leering eyes and possible escapes around every corner in the background and horizontal frames that place Van Orton within the city he usually takes for granted as a lesser being to himself.
So one must turn to the particulars to fill in the soul of the film, a soul that is rather starkly a morality play of precision but not delicacy as Van Orton is ceremoniously pushed off his personal precipice and into the grotto of personal interaction he so obviously disdains. Crisp and cleanly modulated themes abound, primarily our protagonist’s near-authoritarian obsessive lonerism and dictatorial self-possession that bleeds over into a wellspring of implicit classism that attacks even his brother, played by Sean Penn in a rare nondescript role. Amusingly, if not exactly imaginatively, Van Orton’s life soon devolves into an out-of-the-frying-pan situation of his personal fears, which encompass not only being shot at but the, to him more malignant, act of being forced to team up with a working class waitress and develop a humanistic drive to consider her as more than mere window dressing for the first time in his life.
The frigid, impersonal demeanor of the film passes judgment on Van Orton’s lifestyle and the forgiving viewer may claim it also autocorrects his failures, threshing him with his own anonymity until he can’t but learn to be more of a person and less of an automaton. At the very least, the screenplay by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato gallantly medicates against a case of the mumbles, preferring to inscribe the social and political implications in the thrust of the narrative and in the formal craft rather than gluttonously slowing to a crawl to pontificate on the nature of the modern, insular man. Even the script’s grotesque ironies, like a birthday dinner of equal parts cheeseburger, silver tray, and loneliness, or a clown splayed across Van Orton’s driveway like a murder victim, don’t so much cut through the tonal icicles as turn them into knives.
Released in 1997, the mid-‘90s post-Tarantino drive to turn every genre effort into an implicit commentary on filmmaking was very much alive and well, and although The Game’s gamesmanship (ha) isn’t as deliberately smug in its forced, meta-textual pseudo-cleverness as Fincher’s next film Fight Club, The Game nonetheless sublimates a story about the orchestration of life into a tale about the orchestration of the cinematic world. It’s all very Fritz Lang, minus Lang’s formidable, Eisensteinian manipulation of editing across different locations to suggest the world closing in on you and operating in perverse, premeditated, conspiratorial harmony. It’s certainly not un-crafty; as an angled man is reprimanded by a world of angles turned against him, Fincher carves out his jurisdiction over every nook and cranny of the film, a contraption by a syndicate of stylists more than a throbbing, breathing film. But the craft is of the perfected and expected variety rather than the exultantly unexpected kind exercised by a real master of the medium.
All these fussy meta-layers about the maintenance of tentative belief in a film and our willingness to accept what we are watching as real are also too present for their own good, transforming a ground-level thriller into a high-minded think-piece that doesn’t quite have the flexibility to pull it off. Rather than a film the pinpricks you with visual and aural gestures suggesting filmmaking as domination, we’re left grasping for meaning in what is largely a surface-level metaphor. As opposed to relying on craft and nuance to evoke the metaphor, Fincher is mostly content to rely on the concept of his film to do the heavy lifting, which is, in any genre, the mark of someone who was not on their best behavior that day.
Elsewhere, The Game skirts Fincher’s somewhat pandering, lamentable desire to please all-comers, the very “respectable trash” model that has more severely afflicted Fincher’s 2010s output and which currently turns his produced series House of Cards into stillwater and puppy-chow for people who appreciate the vague circus tent of deep themes without the actual plasma or motion of following through or developing those themes formally. Fincher has made a career out of having it both ways, constructing non-committal adult-minded entertainment that is too afraid to actually indulge its trashy ambitions or its intellectual ones because it is afraid the courage to pursue one direction wholeheartedly will lose a fraction of its viewership.
By and large though, The Game is on the right side of luridly trashy without insisting on the clinical complication and half-hearted depth that can sometimes suffocate Fincher’s work (then again, when he actually fully bores into the clinical suffocation without also trying to appeal to the genre thrills requested by the masses, we get Zodiac and Fincher’s one true masterpiece, so who’s to say). One might conclude that the director is at his most effective when he isn’t crossing the streams and isn’t afraid to choose a direction and stick to it. Ultimately, The Game is still too remote and self-consciously sober for its own good, but the slivers of gallows humor and the pile-on absurdity of the situation sparkle with a human edge sometimes lacking in the director’s canon. That, and Douglas is divine, exploiting his disaffected, macho persona in service of a sublimely modulated performance that slithers from entitled recluse to human-longing-for-a-purpose without ever feeling programmatic; he tests the waters of empathy with others without abandoning the prickly loneliness that foregrounds the character, leaving ajar the possibility that the character’s ordeal really hasn’t changed him much at all.