The Game (1997)

D: David Fincher
S: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn

In 1938 Jean Renoir directed The Rules of the Game, a fascinating, multilayered film about the pending collapse of the French class system as the second world war loomed. A biting critique of human nature and society, it explored the world as a series of 'games' around which the characters' lives revolved almost without them being aware of the fact that they were playing them. The transgression and misunderstanding of 'rules' became increasingly important as the film progressed, and its depth and subtlety revealed layers and layers of meaning and human truth which have fascinated cinephiles for generations (though the film was a notorious flop when first released). David Fincher's Se7en has, in the few short years since its release, become a subject for speculation and analysis not far off the kind of attention usually paid only to foreign-language 'classic' films like The Rules of the Game, and it has also spawned legions of bad imitations. That film was also quite rich in detail and yielded surprising depths when studied closely and on repeated viewing. An unusual level of anticipation therefore greeted the release of The Game; "From the director of 'Seven'" as the advertising has loudly proclaimed. Can Fincher once again find the pulse of the commercial mainstream while also holding onto the conceptual and cinematic core which gave his previous film such weight?

Fincher and writer/producers John Brancato and Michael Ferris seem well aware of the layers of meaning which can be attributed to the title of their paranoia thriller, and they are also eager to ensure the audience is constantly entertained. It deals with a sinister and ill-defined 'game' to which multi-millionaire Michael Douglas is given a guest subscription by his irresponsible brother (Sean Penn). Supposedly attuned to the psychological and emotional needs of its rich participants, this game 'supplies what's missing' in their lives. In this case the players is a 'player', a typically soulless product of runaway capitalism nursing psychological wounds buried deep under decades of denial and aggressive overcompensation in the field of business. As the game gets underway, he finds himself being manipulated the way he so easily manipulates the lives and destinies of those less fortunate. Specifically, people seem to be trying to kill him, or rob him, or both. The lines between player and played are slowly blurred just as the lines between the roles we play in life and the roles played by others who are participants in this game become increasingly uncertain. As a series of action and suspense scenes unfold, Douglas realises that the 'game' may in fact be a cover for a plot to deprive him of his life's fortune and unbalance him psychologically just like his father before him. All very Freudian.

Though it invites closer scrutiny because of its foregrounding of questions of manipulation and perception which cinema itself leaves itself open to, The Game is really just a by-the-numbers shaggy dog story of poetic justice and big twists of a kind which The Twilight Zone used to do in neat television half hours and Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner dealt with endlessly over a series of episodes. There are moments when it gets it right, small scenes which demonstrate how easily one's sense of oneself and one's environment can be changed by small details. Following a Videodrome-like scene where Douglas is informed of the ground-rules of the game by his television set, he begins to suspect everyone around him is part of the conspiracy. Fincher captures this with some nice use of POV and eye-line matching as miscellaneous characters seem suddenly invested with sinister energy even though they're just walking by or doing their job. The film draws its character deeper and deeper into a slippery Brian DePalma-esque world where the rug can be pulled from under your feet with a change in camera angle. It asks you to empathise with its central character's disorientation despite the fact that you are well aware that 'it's only a movie', and hopes that the final result will be one of those elusive 'roller coaster rides' that publicists love to promote. Fincher is not quite as comfortable with this material as DePalma can be though (Mission: Impossible, Raising Cain). He concentrates instead on building tension, and uses the environment as a set instead of a dreamscape.

Like Se7en (and Alien 3), the film has a distinctive visual style composed of rich, deep colours with sinister shadows and equally sinister bright and open spaces. Cinematographer Harris Savides is not Darius Khondji (Se7en), but the film does have an appropriate texture achieved though a combination of direction and photography. Set mostly at night, it attempts to suggest vulnerability in open cityscapes, especially ones which may or may not be as peopled as they seem. The incorporation of home movie footage for flashbacks is less rewarding and seems altogether too obvious, but like most things in this movie, the question is less how subtle or elegant it is and how much scrutiny it rewards as what it can achieve by affect. In its own terms, everything adds up just as it should for the purposes of telling the story, but the results are frequently less rich than they seem to have hoped they might be. For Fincher, it must have been a nightmare trying to find a project to follow Se7en, and, unfortunately, he has fallen victim to commercial dilution with this 'high concept' package which promises much but delivers little.

The film is also too long to pass for casual entertainment. Its outcome is so patently predictable from the outset that the audience is likely to be frustrated waiting for it to happen. The individual action and suspense scenes which fill out the running time are reasonably well mounted, but not really very exciting (machine guns and runaway taxi cabs included). The sense of paranoid disorientation is not quite strong enough to overcome the familiarity of the whole thing after decades of twist thrillers and it doesn't have enough characters to sustain momentum like The Usual Suspects. In thematic terms the film is horribly simplistic, a story of hesitation and redemption which actually seems to come to one conclusion then provides one exactly the opposite simply because it allows for another narrative twist. Is Douglas' character destined to become his father and loose this 'game', or is he going to prove to be one of life's 'winners' and enjoy a laugh and a champagne with his wayward brother in the end? Can you guess?

The Game is unlikely to find an appreciative audience very easily, though it is well enough handled on a technical level to pass a couple of hours on video or TV in years to come. It has its moments, Douglas is solid in a performance which sometimes plays like 'Whatever happened to Gordon Gekko?' and the supporting cast all keep things on a serious note which at least has the merit of not sniggering up its sleeve all the time. But there simply isn't enough substance here and the film is eventually as routine and ordinary as we have come to expect from the mainstream even after a film as rich as Se7en. It's no-one's fault, but that doesn't make it any less disappointing, nor does it make the film any more entertaining or enjoyable.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.