Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. David Fincher's The Game (1997) is showing March 23 – April 22, 2019 in many countries around the world.
“...from any given body of fictional text, nothing necessarily follows, and anything plausibly may.”
—William H. Gass, “The Concept of Character in Fiction”
What is The Game?
“The eternal question,” an unnamed character intones, when he is asked this by its newest player, Nicholas van Orton (Michael Douglas), a middle-aged millionaire unaccustomed to befuddlement. Mainstream critics, who similarly dislike being perplexed, didn’t quite know what to make of the film when it premiered in 1997: responses were tepid and noncommittal, and, despite its $100 million box office draw, it has long been considered a minor work in David Fincher’s oeuvre, ensconced between the seminal Se7en (1995) and the belatedly-loved Fight Club (1999). It is a film that is at once subtle and silly, whose perfunctory reputation belies the virtuosic craftsmanship evident in every shot, and the careful, studious attention paid to diminutive, seemingly insignificant details. The serpentine thriller exists in a dangerous, hermetic world of chicanery and artifice, a solipsistic world of glass towers that glint like grand statements and businessmen with flatlined lips—men who have everything but understand nothing. Nicholas, a successful man in a gray suit, receives a surprise birthday visit from his cut-up brother, Conrad (Sean Penn). Conrad, who wryly goes by the pseudonym “Seymour Butts,” gives Nicholas a special gift, a certificate for an enigmatic “game,” the rules of which are obtuse, and whose purpose is nebulous. What else do you get the man who has everything except something that he can't understand? Conrad is, essentially, gifting Nicholas with confusion, something with which Nicholas, who lives a sealed-off life, is unfamiliar. The Game is run by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS), whose logo is a Penrose triangle, an intangible object, though this fact goes unmentioned. (The film is replete with such keen minutiae.) Figuring out the object of The Game is the object of The Game, but luxuriating in the details of The Game is the purpose of Fincher’s film.
Nicholas lives a pampered, privileged life; he is “a bloated, millionaire fat cat.” He lives on “the biggest house on the street,” has a personal maid, and drives a shiny black BMW. Notice the way he glares at a bag of Chinese takeout, as if it were a sack of shit, or his indignation upon receiving news of his purported rejection from The Game, spitting out, “This is ridiculous.” His pursed lips, that perfidious and laconic manner—he is, as Deborah Kara Unger’s waitress says, “an asshole,” a subtly doleful man who uses words carefully, plays racquetball alone, and spends nights watching cable news, a man to whom the capitalist system has given everything except happiness. (Between this, Paul Verhoeven’s lurid and ludicrous Basic Instinct, and the Michael Crichton-penned Disclosure, Michael Douglas was the 1990s’ premiere player of sleazy men in suits.) Nicholas is haunted by the suicide of his father, who, at the age of 48, nose-dived off the top of their house in his bathrobe. Now, as Nicholas turns 48, portents of the long-dead man manifest everywhere, reminders of the cursed blood that courses his veins. Nicholas drifts like a ghost through his menial millionaire existence; he is a modern Scrooge, a moneyed man devoid of purpose. He cares about the bottom line, about the stock prices. Not that he needs any more money, but he needs a reason to keep living, and making money seems a good enough impetus.
The Game was written in 1991 as a spec screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. The film was initially to be directed by the young Jonathan Mostow and starring a post-Twin Peaks Kyle Maclachlan, but production moved from MGM to PolyGram, and thank goodness it did. MacLachlan, a fine actor, lacks the cold, craven quality necessary for the role, and Mostow the meticulous obsessive direction of Fincher, who, coming off of Se7en, was Hollywood’s hot hired gun. Fincher and an uncredited Andrew Kevin Walker (who wrote Se7en) rewrote the script, making Nicholas more sardonic, more incredulous. What was initially a twisty Hollywood thriller became a sagacious, ontological exercise in loss of control, about manipulation, and, recalling Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, redemption. It is about capitalism, and the obliterating ignorance engendered by privilege, and Nicholas, the epitome of a mean, affluent bastard, becomes another dupe of a pervasive, impeccable system.
The film is one of Fincher’s most visually ravishing. The dizzying display of craftsmanship is sedulous, sublime; it recalls the paranoiac work of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film with which it shares many thematic similarities, has lighting and subdued colors redolent of Gordon Willis, and compositions so meticulous, so detailed, they could festoon the wall of a wealthy art collector’s penthouse. Towards the beginning, there is one of Fincher’s beloved slow camera pushes, sliding into a wood-hued office, a floor agleam with lights that seep through sallow windows, faces awash in saffron glow. When Nicholas drives around San Francisco, the city reflects majestically off the glinting windows of his car. From tenebrous shadows come faces glowing like ghosts. It’s a cryptic, beautiful film—even a plane landing shot, one of those arbitrary insertions that De Palma notoriously refused to do, is imbued with an ominous air.
Nicholas’s Game is an increasingly ridiculous plunge into an oneiric nightmare; as Kafka says in The Trial, “It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.” The film is absurd, and absurdist, but it is never stupid. CRS is ubiquitous, Godlike. They have the police, the taxi drivers, the wait staff at restaurants, the security guards. They own buildings, they own lives. All the echelons and tiers and classes are involved, from the lowly minimum wage workers to the execs with the half-windsors. CRS expunges Nicholas’s bank accounts, they cajole and goad him, manipulate him, every step of the way; they know him better than he knows himself. The exploding pen, the invisible ink, the fake guns, the bevy of actors and panoply of real-world set pieces—all of it is designed to lead Nicholas to the ledge of a building, off of which he must jump, like his father. A quote from Fincher’s next film, Fight Club, comes to mind, once Nicholas takes the step off that ledge: “It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.”
Another Kafka quote is also relevant here: “From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.” Nicholas reaches that point. He must.
The Game follows its own internal philosophical logic, gallivanting with great, undeterred momentum towards an inevitable conclusion as the capitalist logic that Nicholas has been following for his entire life begins to break down, like a body ravaged with illness. CRS has seeming omnipotence; they anticipate every move Nicholas makes, and lead him, as if directing an actor, to each mark, to each new set piece. None of this is realistic, nor does it pretend to be; it is believable because the film commits to this sense of absurd logic, because it is self-aware enough to acknowledge skepticism without faltering, without hesitating. It is a work of rich imagination, not of Jamesian realism, a philosophical inquiry into the nature of a particular man. Calculated with clockwork precision, every detail planned to the minutest possible anomaly, the film’s plot is as airtight as Fincher’s direction is punctilious. Nicholas’s climatic fall is planned within a 21-minute window (the invitation states that the party will begin “somewhere between eight seventeen and eight thirty eight in the evening”). It recalls Jimmy Stewart’s life-affirming visit from Clarence the wingless angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, the heavens themselves trying to save one man from self-destruction, except here, it’s people doing God’s work, people who bend the rules of reality to convince Nicholas to get busy living.
Here’s Hume, on how our imagination works like madness:
“The imagination has the command over all its ideas and can join and mix and vary them in all the ways possible. It may conceive fictitious objects with all the circumstances of place and time. It may set them in a manner before our eyes, in their true colors, just as they might have existed. But as it is impossible that this faculty of imagination can ever, of itself, reach belief, it is evident that beliefs consists not in the peculiar nature or order of ideas, but in the manner of their conception and in their feeling to the mind.”
Passion, not reason, governs human behavior, Hume opined, and passion, not reason, govern The Game. The whole thing is orchestrated to instill a newfound love for life in Nicholas—what’s more passionate than that? Kant, having read Hume, said he was awakened from a “dogmatic slumber” by the philosopher’s profound words; Nicholas, too, is jarred from a similar slumber by The Game, like a somnolent shaken awake.