20 Years Later, ‘The Game’ Is Still David Fincher’s Most Underrated Movie
“I don’t care about the money. I’m pulling back the curtain. I want to meet the wizard.”
Michael Douglas’ disheveled Nicholas Van Orton is one of the most powerful men in the United States, so why is he holding a man hostage and demanding answers? When David Fincher’s The Game came out in 1997, it was received as a control freak’s nightmare. A vision that could only have come from the mind of one of cinema’s most talented young directors. Today, Consumer Recreation Services could be any company on the street. With unlimited access to data from social media and emails, a small group of technicians could manufacture their own reality. In a time of alt-facts, when the nature of truth is constantly up for debate, The Game feels far more significant than its reputation as middle-tier a David Fincher project.
Sure, The Game won the weekend at the box office when it debuted in September of 1997, but its final total made it just the 41st highest-grossing movie that year — behind Volcano and Speed 2: Cruise Control. At Rotten Tomatoes, The Game bats a solid but not spectacular 72 percent. In terms of the financial success, The Game ranks eighth out of Fincher’s ten films when adjusted for inflation. On a creative level, Zodiac, The Social Network, and Seven are all considered well ahead of it. But if it was released today, the film would probably find a more welcoming audience that’s used to a world inundated with words that don’t mean anything, where the truth is twisted and manipulated during every nightly newscast. For Nicholas Van Orton, that nightly news coverage comes with additional surprises when Daniel Schorr (then a CNN anchor) breaks the fourth wall of his television on his 48th birthday.
Turning 48 holds a particular significance for Nicholas. It’s the same age his father leapt off a roof to his death. That memory nags at Nicholas, and his solitary nature keeps anyone that would try to talk to him about it at a distance. Grief affects us all, but each person must choose how to exercise it. The big day arrives with little fanfare until his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) hands Nicholas a card for Consumer Recreation Services. “Call them” is Conrad’s only suggestion regarding the company. Nicholas despises any deviation from his routine, yet the mystery surrounding the group proves too much for him to resist. “What is this? What are you ... selling?” Nicholas asks as he fills out the litany of CRS paperwork only to be told that his application has been rejected. As the TV monitor reveals that Nicholas is the one being watched, it turns out his rejection is the first of many lies that the game will reveal.
As he grapples with his new reality, Nicholas realizes that there isn’t anyone who can talk him through it. Everything in Van Orton’s life is immaculately designed to keep others at a distance. Alone in his mansion, Nicholas stares at the television monitoring the stock market. Managing the tumultuous financial landscape would be too chaotic for most to handle, yet Nicholas’ compulsive need to control everything suits him perfectly. Personal relationships are a different matter, however. When Nicholas’ secretary tells him, “I have an Elizabeth on line three,” she waits for a beat, then adds, “Your wife, sir.” He responds coldly with an “I know,” but we’re not even sure he remembered. Only his maid converses with him for more than business transactions; even Conrad can’t get his brother back in the world.
Not being in command was something Nicholas never had to consider because he could bend reality to his will. Now, he can’t even keep his home safe. His private domain is torn asunder by outside forces. This invasion remains the most disturbing for Nicholas as he runs his hands along the neon-tinged wall that used to be part of his living room. Control, he is learning, is an illusion, even for billionaires. With no vanity left to blind him, Nicholas is forced to put his feet back on the ground after floating in skyscrapers for years.
Chuck Klosterman writes in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs that “objective reality is not situational; it doesn’t evolve along with you.” He wrote that excerpt about The Matrix and Vanilla Sky, but it describes Nicholas’ conundrum perfectly. The world is exactly the same, but it chooses to interact with him very differently. The Game turns San Francisco into a sprawling urban nightmare that Nicholas doesn’t even recognize. The game is more dangerous than implied, especially as the lines between the game and his real life become blurred. Nicholas thinks he can trust a waitress (Deborah Kara Unger) who has helped him, though her motives are suspect. Even his own brother could be part of the game; everything serving as a front to steal the Van Orton fortune.
Michael Douglas won an Oscar as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, but his trademark arrogance is best utilized in The Game — especially as it fades into desperation. Few men can make a fragile psyche look as dangerous as Michael Douglas. Falling Down gets mentioned more often, but as Douglas comes unhinged in The Game’s final act, it’s clear which performance deserves recognition. Seeking comfort in a friend, Nicholas confides to Christine about his plight just as he realizes her entire home has been set-decorated into existence. The look of pure terror on his face registers more deeply than any of his practiced cynical speeches earlier in the film.
The need to know what is real is an urgent one. As Klosterman acknowledges in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, “We can’t alter reality — but reality can’t exist unless we know it’s there. It depends on us as much as we depend on it.” Van Orton can’t tell whether the game is simply a fraud or something potentially fatal. As he raves and points a loaded weapon at Christine, it’s clear that no one anticipated just how far Nicholas would go. Accidentally killing Conrad is his last push over the edge. Men left with little to live for make rash decisions; as the elder Van Orton’s suicide would attest. Nicholas wakes up in a coffin in Mexico, and as far as he’s concerned, it’s not paranoia if the world really is out to get you. This reality is subjective, but Nicholas can’t know that because of his isolation. He is a prisoner of his own perspective.
Deviousness defines Fincher’s oeuvre, but even he might not have anticipated the state of reality 20 years after The Game’s release. In a time where people live inside social-media bubbles, verify a news source by agreeing with it, and argue the definition of a fact, The Game’s themes are suddenly open to reinterpretation. How easy would it be for CRS to perpetuate a game with 24/7 news cycles? How would we even know if they did? Losing touch with what’s real means death not just for Nicholas, but for al of us. Human connection is what prevents men like Nicholas from viewing people as obstacles rather than offering a gesture of goodwill.
Fincher’s films are often described as cold or cynical, but The Game is remarkably empathetic. Critics were unable to get past the final twist 20 years ago, yet the catharsis of Nicholas leaping to his own death (ultimately, and semi-tragically, making the line between him and father very faint) only to find out that he didn’t kill his brother is welcome. He’s rediscovered his humanity. Even for a director as unsentimental as Fincher, he knows that redemption offers a powerful moment. Nicholas Van Orton figured that out before it was too late. Hopefully, we do too.