The Game (Fincher, 1997)

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David Fincher structures many of his films around conflicted protagonists at odds with their surroundings, people entrenched behind literal or imagined walls hiding their mind-numbing guilt from the outside world. In Se7en, Det. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) understands and accepts his inability to protect the innocent, while the trio of characters at the heart of Zodiac tragically pursue a futile conclusion to their own obsessive quest of a serial killer. In Panic Room and Fight Club, Fincher’s respective leads entomb themselves inward to escape the evils, either self-induced or not, that challenge notions of physical and mental space. This approach to character organically connects with Fincher’s often brilliant construction of audio and visual elements, allowing for the viewer a first hand look into a very detailed nightmare.

But with The Game, Fincher challenges the root of his hero’s guilt, making Nicolas Van Orten (Michael Douglas) an incredibly wealthy but cinematically ordinary investment banker who chooses to insert himself into a modern day hall of mirrors out of sheer boredom. Even the moments Van Orten sits alone in his dark mansion, or drives down the emotionally hollow San Francisco streets, evoke monotony rather than suspense. Yes, Van Orten’s father killed himself in a rather dramatic fashion, witnessed in the stark 8-mm home movie flashbacks, and Fincher clearly makes a fateful connection between father and son. But for once, the Fincher protagonist isn’t directly responsible for the guilt he feels, at least not in an overt way, which makes the faux cruelty of the film’s narrative striking and relentless. The outside world forces an exciting and dangerous perception onto Van Orten’s benign reality, pushing him to appreciate the life he has built without regretting the family skeletons in the closet. In this way, The Game is literally about cinematic manipulation, and Van Orten, along with the audience happens to be the guinea pig. Disturbingly, the ending seems to suggest that if you’ve got enough money, you can buy your own false comeuppance, learn from it, and move on richer not only in wealth, but moral respects as well. This makes The Game increasingly complex in that the conflicted moral center gets let off the hook and allowed closure, as opposed to other Fincher heroes who suffer mightily to the bitter end. Watching The Game more than a decade after its release and amidst a huge global recession, I wonder if Fincher would be so kind to Van Orten’s future prospects if given the chance.

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