The Game movie still

Retrospective

25 years ago, David Fincher made his most absurd conspiracy thriller ever

Fincher went on to say he regretted making this movie, but The Game has plenty of redeeming qualities

Polygram Pictures

Say what you like about David Fincher — plenty have when it comes to his unrelenting quest for perfectionism, “f***ing weird” on-set relationships, and ability to reduce his leading men to tears — but the master of the psychological thriller certainly isn’t afraid to step outside of his own ego bubble.

Disillusioned by constant studio interference, the three-time Academy Award nominee has repeatedly dismissed his 1992 directorial debut Alien 3 (“To this day, no one hates it more than me”). Even Zodiac, the evocative crime saga widely regarded as his masterpiece, hasn’t been immune from such self-flagellation (“We kind of made it too long on one hand and not deep enough on another”). Yet it’s perhaps the most forgotten entry in his remarkably consistent oeuvre that Fincher appears to be the most regretful about.

In a 2014 interview with Playboy, the auteur revealed his producer partner Ceán Chaffin strongly advised him to steer clear of making The Game, the tale of an investment banker whose life gets turned upside down by perhaps the most elaborately-staged birthday present known to man. “And in hindsight, my wife was right,” he acknowledged.

While Fincher was perhaps right in criticizing its slightly ludicrous third act, the film — which celebrates its 25th anniversary on September 12 — is undeserving of such erasure. With its richly suspenseful visuals, intriguing premise, and committed lead performance, it’s certainly worthy of sitting alongside Panic Room and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in the league of mid-tier Fincher, anyway.

Michael Douglas’ Nicholas in gun-toting mode.Polygram Pictures.

The Game stars Michael Douglas as Nicholas van Orton, a divorced workaholic who spends his days barking orders in a remarkably spacious San Francisco office and his evenings dining alone in an empty mansion, all the while haunted by childhood visions that resemble the opening credits to Succession. As with the truly awful Roy family, ridiculous amounts of money can’t buy happiness.

Nicholas’ humdrum private life takes a turn for the thrilling, though, following a 48th birthday dinner with his black sheep brother Conrad (Sean Penn), a recovering drug addict who gifts him what initially appears to be the laziest of presents: a voucher. Of course, this isn’t for another custom-made Oxxford suit but for an experience that will require both his mental and physical state to be prodded from every angle. “I feel guilty when I masturbate” is just one of the various intrusive statements needing a response.

Nicholas looks surprisingly content to receive a creepy clown on his doorstep.Polygram Pictures

Although understandably skeptical, Nicholas is encouraged to give the mystery game a try by some of his cronies (“I envy you. I wish I could go back and do it for the first time, all over again”), only for his thorough application to be rejected. But following a series of strange disturbances — a clown doll with a key attached to his tongue arrives on his doorstep, the newsreader he’s watching on TV starts addressing him directly — the banker realizes he’s already playing it.

Nicholas doesn’t initially make for a particularly sympathetic figure. He’s contemptuous of everyone from his wayward sibling to the waitress who accidentally showers him with wine. There’s initially a sense of schadenfreude in watching the shady company behind the game gradually tear his life apart, whether it’s draining his bank account or planting reputation-destroying Polaroids in his hotel room.

However, as the game gets more intense and places Nicholas in all kinds of death-defying, far-fetched scenarios, Douglas stops channeling his privileged yuppie in Wall Street and instead begins to summon the same mix of desperation and defiance that made his rampaging antihero in Falling Down strangely root-worthy. It’s an impressively multi-faceted display from a man who, unlike Fincher, remains deeply proud of the “well-made picture.”

Nicholas reading the questionable questions.Polygram Pictures

The film’s cinematography, which imbues the wealthy neighborhoods of San Francisco with the prospect of menace lurking behind every corner, is just as worthy of applause. And despite Fincher’s naysaying, he still manages to sustain the tension and overwhelming sense of paranoia throughout its lengthy 128 minutes. Just when you think you have the film figured out along comes another twist, which leaves you questioning both who’s complicit in the game, and exactly what the end goal is.

Whether you’re prepared to accept the big reveal will perhaps depend on whether you were watching The Game as an intelligent conspiracy about power, grief, and corporate culture or simply a bit of popcorn nonsense. Before turning on his own work, Fincher described the narrative as a “fashionable, good-looking Scrooge, lured into a Mission: Impossible situation with a steroid shot in the thigh from The Sting.” And that Ebenezer reference serves as a pretty big clue about its redemptive ending.

Spoilers ahead for the ending of The Game. If you’d prefer to watch it for yourself first, now’s your chance.

Yes, it turns out Nicholas wasn’t subjected to an armed attack, drugging, and near-drowning after being plunged into a river while locked in a driverless car because a shadowy organization wanted him dead. These were simply all game-based obstacles he needed to overcome in order to become more appreciative of his life. And while all the mindfuckery appears to have backfired when an understandably exasperated Nicholas accidentally shoots his brother during all the confusion, poetically prompting the banker to jump to his death just like their father, along comes another double bluff. Conrad was simply playing dead, while Nicholas somehow survives the mammoth drop onto a conveniently-placed crash mat.

Fincher had delivered one of the decade’s greatest gut-punching endings in his previous effort Seven. Its follow-up, however, left you needing a blow to the head to overlook its giant lapses in logic and plausibility. Still, all the pulpy thrills served up beforehand make The Game one of the filmmaker’s most purely entertaining spectacles. As well as being too hard on his actors, Fincher is perhaps a little too hard on himself.

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