Nicholas Van Orton (Douglas) is an investment banker who is always in control of the situation. He is cold, calculating and always on his game. Nicholas lives a well-ordered life-until an unexpected birthday gift from his brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), destroys it all.
David Fincher has once been quoted as saying “I don’t know how much movies should entertain. I’m interested in movies that scar”. Whether he is referring to the scarring of the characters within his films or of the audience voyeuristically partaking in his dark and twisted tales is unclear. What is definitely accurate about Fincher’s films is that they leave an undeniable mark on each and everyone involved.
It is hard to mistake a Fincher film. They usually contain very little natural light and the atmosphere will be extremely unsettling. This will then force the audience to share the protagonists’ feelings of unease and paranoia. As well, by the end of the film, Fincher’s “hero” has usually undergone some sort of life-changing trauma.
The Game is a film that may be the least known of Fincher’s. It arrived in between Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999) and has seemed to have been overlooked as a great film. This is a great film. The manipulative control Fincher seems to possess over his audience is mastery in its calculation and concoction.
The story is simple. A man is given a present that will eventually drive him to the depths of depravity and despair by turning him into the character he has always deemed offensive and unimportant. It is a well known story cliché. He will then become a better person as a result of his journey which will be expressed through his change in character and his thoughts and actions towards others. However, Fincher beautifully makes this simple story his own. Fincher is a master of brooding and depressing atmospheres. There is no life in his films. Oh, there are people alive but his focus seems to be on reanimating the dead that exists within the body. Nicolas Van Orton is a character who lives alone. He is rich, powerful and most of all, successful. But yet, he is dead within. He rarely smiles and seems to have become who he is now as a result of witnessing his father’s suicide at a young age. Other than talking to his housekeeper and his lawyer (which he still does to a limited degree), he is a man who keeps to himself. He does not want to be bothered and will only bother another if there is progress to be made. He is sort of a 90’s version of Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (who Douglas played as well) who is more in touch with control and intimidation then he is with emotional contact.
The idea that Nicolas was unable to prevent his father’s suicide left him in a state of shock. He was unable to control the situation and thus he felt pain for the very first time. The film starts off with images of Nicolas as a child and his father and it is clear that this event was crucial in the shaping of Nicolas as a man. He lost a very important person in his life and as a result, he became a closed off and emotionally detached human being. He feels that being in control will prevent him from ever feeling pain again but yet (unaware to him until after the “game” begins) he yearns for closure in regards to his father’s death. It is only when the “game” begins that he slowly begins to exist once again and to reemerge as a living entity.
Douglas is masterful in his performance. He refuses to break character at any moment until it is deemed necessary by the script. Even when this “game” begins, Douglas portrays Nicolas as a character who still believes he is in control of the situation. He believes he has it all figured out until, of course, he doesn’t. When things do not go as planned, he panics as a result. He does not know how to control the situation which leaves him vulnerable and confused (feelings he has cut himself off from). He has never had to cope with change because he has never attempted to change himself. He must rediscover his inner self before there is any chance of redemption or rebirth.
Within moments of the films’ commencement, we come to identify with Nicolas. He may not be the most friendly and admirable protagonist in film history but yet we still attempt to identify with him. As a result, we form some sort of control over the narrative. We believe that we understand the simple structure of the story and will not be undermined by it in any manner (as Nicolas feels when the “game” begins). However, as this film progresses, we, the audience, become lost and confused. We, as Nicolas, are unaware of our surroundings and have become paranoid and fearful of the people within the narrative. Who do we trust? Where do we go from here? It is now the blind leading the blind.
This film may not be noted as one of Fincher’s more important pieces of work but yet it is a beautifully crafted piece of entertainment. The writing is taut and the acting is superb. Yes, many of the events are implausible and rely heavily on coincidence and chance but it is told and shot in such a high octane sort of way that the audience is quick to forgive the filmmakers for these insignificant and basically pointless quibbles.