The Game – David Fincher – 1997

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The opening image of David Fincher’s The Game is that of a father and son standing together, side by side, then the film washes out and the frame is filled with light. The severance of father and son is a deep destruction, and this sadness is at the heart of this deeply underrated thriller. We move then to a party, a welcome starting point for any tale. When we see people celebrate we know much about them from their social status to what they find worth celebrating.

In this case it is a boy’s 10th birthday. The party is set behind a giant mansion and we see the man from the opening image intermittently, alone, smoking. We see the boy holding his baby brother up, proud of his little sibling. This image is inverted later in the picture as Conrad “saves” his older brother Nicky.

We see the father walking toward the house and then he notices the camera. Once seen, he stops and turns, clearly not wanting to be seen. The camera has this power, and Fincher magnifies it in this tiny shot. We are not willing to do what we might alone when others are watching. We cut to a girl alone at a table, oblivious of the camera. She is fat and stuffing her face with cake. The greed and lack of awareness of the little girl is indicative of the inverse of the man walking to the house. Since she is unaware, she keeps stuffing her face, like an investment banker fleecing his clients behind closed doors.

Again we see the image of father and son, this time the image recedes into darkness. This party was both the high point of Nicky’s impression of his father, and as we will find out later in the picture, the lowest as well.

We cut forward in time to Nicholas Van Orton’s 48th birthday. He lives in an opulent house and has a housekeeper who serves him breakfast. She mentions his ex-wife and he’s really a dick to her about it. We instantly do not like this guy.

At work a woman wishes him a happy birthday and he has someone else fire her. He receives a lunch reservation for two by Seymour Butts. He takes it. It turns out to be his long lost brother Conrad, who has returned to give Nicky his birthday present. A profound life experience courtesy of CRS is what the card says.

Fincher is going fairly deep here, both exploring a brother’s obligation to save his sibling’s soul and to what extent one can even crack the avaristic surface of someone as black hearted as an investment banker. Conrad peaks his curiosity because the product is obtuse, different every time, impossible to explain. That the rich could even have such a service is ridiculous, but Fincher uses CRS, ultimately, as a catalyst powerful enough to humanize a snake of a man.

We see Nicky on the phone answering to whoever he is beholden too. An unseen figure on the phone that is never identified gives resonance to the theme of detachment throughout. A man like Van Orton is sufficiently separated from even his bosses and clients that he has no need for what most of us understand as the social contract. Do unto others is a thought that clearly never passes through his entitled little skull.

We flash back to an image of his father standing on the roof.

Nicky gets a call from his ex-wife. We learn that his father was 48 when he committed suicide, apparently at his son’s birthday. So both birthdays and the 48th year are bound to be sore spots for Nicky, though from all we’ve seen, the guy is just one big sore spot. He cold to his wife and hangs up while the television discusses health care for small businesses, a cause he could not care less about. Again, the words on the TV act as a counterpoint to Van Orton’s worldview. He is a whirlpool, only taking in, never giving back like the tides.

When Nicky goes back to work he discovers a CRS office in his building. He goes in and takes the psych tests. They subject him to a series of violent images in a cinema to see how he will respond. This scene is crucial to to the douchebag investment banker watching the film. Hey shithead! This is you! Are you watching the film? Do you have principals or a soul? When CRS calls and tells you have been declined is it going to rattle your existence to have someone tell you no?

The film is basically a brilliant morality play about having the amazingly affluent hit rock bottom in order to discover humanity and basic empathy. Through his own curiosity, Van Orton, is tricked into a vain game that will ultimately place him at the mercy of his fellow man and force him to re-evaluate his worldview.

This theme is revisited in more detail in Fincher’s follow up, Fight Club, a film whose basic theme is the reinvention of a man’s purpose.

Once the game has begun, the media, (Van Orton’s) TV begins the belittling assault by calling Nick a bloated millionaire fatcat. We are presented here with the idea of an omnipresent surveillance. In that the game changes Van Orton to a more civil man by the end of the story, Fincher makes the audience complicit in the idea that an eye on everyone could hold even the worst of us accountable. But the idea that a second party could easily infiltrate even the richest individuals home should give one pause. I’m not sure that Big Brother is necessary for moral action.

From this point on the film presents Nick with various moral tests from a choking man in the street to having a waitress fired to dealing with his own brother’s paranoia. Fincher expertly ratchets up the tension while raising stakes and humanizing Van Orton one scene at a time. At one point Nicky receive s a letter that says, “Like my father before me I choose eternal sleep.” This basically begs the question what does one live for. Nick begins to form values and live by them.

Conrad returns and is an active participant, both in the middle and at the end of the show, showing a true commitment to his brother. He is after nothing less than salvation and he is the only one that can give that to his brother. If you see your brother’s plight and can help him, should you? Are you obligated? The Game suggests that is the moral high ground and in the end it seems Nick is saved.

After Nick is driven off a pier, and forced to use his survival instinct for the first time in his life and ultimately left in a Mexican grave he is forced to sell his fathers watch, that keepsake that both immortalizes time and timelessness in order to escape his fate. He begs in a truck stop for a ride back to San Francisco.

Upon his return, his world is empty; he is filled with paranoia and trusts only his ex-wife. In the end his faithlessness leads him to shoot a gun at an opening elevator, shooting his brother, his salvation, and ultimately he takes the short road, like his father, leaping to his doom.

And as he brushes away the breakaway glass and the stunt cushion deflates, we are left thinking, is this what it takes to infuse the greedy men of the world with a soul? Some fictional recourse, impossible in reality? Is it enough for the film to exist to let them know what soulless pricks they are? In the end, it is revealed that CRS has control over any aspect of your life perceivable, and only through an extremely elaborate ruse can a destroyed man find salvation. I honestly hope it’s less complicated than that.

The Game is thoroughly enjoyable and only rarely challenges my notion of what is possible in the world, (most notably false machine gun fire), but the message remains, investment bankers are douchers in need of a swift kick in the ass. God help us all.

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