Fear Itself: David Fincher’s THE GAME At 20

Twenty years later, Jacob revisits the master filmmaker's technically accomplished dissertation on anxiety and desire.

When David Fincher was pitching his adaptation of Spider-Man during the '90s, the key element that ruled out his take with studio execs was the refusal to execute another feature length origin tale. In Fincher’s version, our friendly neighborhood web-head was going to have his backstory explained via an opening mini-operetta, which would get his superhero coming of age out of the way so the fastidious Hollywood technician could tell the story he wanted to tell. This idiosyncratic approach rubbed suits the wrong way, but was repurposed for The Game (’97), Fincher’s Hitchcockian follow-up to the smash bit of serial killer morbidity, Seven (’95).

We’re introduced to Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) via a series of home movies. It's Nicholas’ birthday party at his family’s lavish estate, and the kid is all half-assed smirks, the sparks of candles placed on an unseen cake illuminating his face like fireworks. Yet whenever his father is around, Nicholas tenses; the patriarch’s distant gazes and unsubtle grimaces casting a long shadow over what should’ve been a festive day. This is all foreshadowing; letting us know exactly what type of man Nicholas is going to turn out to be. There’s no radioactive spider, or magical transformation. Genes are all that’s required to transmute Mr. Van Orton into a shadow of his soon to be suicidal father – an ultimate, and probably unavoidable, fate.

In James Swallow’s Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher, the meticulous auteur is quoted as saying that The Game is about loss of control. The purpose is to take your greatest fear, put it this close to your face and say 'There, you're still alive. It's all right.’” This statement feels like a cunning half-truth, as it’s not difficult to view Van Orton as a stand-in for Fincher, navigating the Hollywood system at the beginning of his career. A product of commercials and music videos, Fincher’s first feature (Alien 3 [‘92]) was notoriously tampered with by Fox, to the point that the director wanted his name removed from the final product. Though you can still feel Fincher in that second xenomorph sequel (there’s no denying the funeral/Rottweiler birth sequence distinctly belongs to the filmmaker), Seven is viewed by the artist as his initial, unfiltered big screen endeavor. Following its success, The Game doubles as both a tight thriller, and a reflection of Fincher’s fears regarding his professional path moving forward. He finally got one movie done his way, and hopefully wouldn’t have to fight to do that ever again.

As a character in his own life’s movie, Van Orton is an amalgamation of its player’s two greatest roles. Michael Douglas redefined the face of the American shark in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (’87), as Gordon Gekko became the snaky avatar for Reagan-era corporate greed. Van Orton is Gekko devoid of any outgoing personality – a condescending recluse who’d rather value the faceless throng’s hard-earned dollars while sitting high up in his personal castle. He’s a modern Ebenezer Scrooge, uncaring about his assistant and personal maids’ needs, ice cold with his ex-wife, and altogether unpleasant toward just about everybody he encounters. The watch he wears – a present from his mother on Nicholas’ eighteenth birthday – is the closest we get to witnessing any true sense of sentimentality from the stern broker. If Gekko represented '80s decadence, then Van Orton is his isolationist '90s counterpart, never wanting to let anyone get too close for comfort.

The second character Fincher inserts into Van Orton’s persona is Dan Gallagher, another one of Douglas’ iconic turns in Fatal Attraction (’87). Only Gallagher is who Van Orton slowly transforms into, after his brother Conrad (a lively, underused Sean Penn) gifts Nicholas a trip to Consumer Recreation Services (CRS), the shady life experience conglomerate who turns his sibling’s days upside down. During the trials, tests and ominous shenanigans – which range from submerging him inside a locked taxi cab to burying him alive in Mexico – Van Orton’s shield of subzero self-assurance melts, until he’s just as panicked and paranoid as the everyman who cheated on his wife with the wrong woman. Suddenly, not even money can shelter him against encroaching outside forces. The world has come to touch Nicholas Van Orton, as he slowly sinks into an ever-engulfing fear of jumping from the roof of a tall building, just like his father did at the age of forty-eight (which the billionaire just turned today).

Fincher has always been a stony perfectionist, often obsessed with professionals who themselves are consumed by process, fixation and are often isolated from the outside world. Seven features detectives (Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) who pore over literature and crime scenes in equal measure. Jodie Foster’s single mother has to retreat to the titular safe space in Panic Room (’02) after a gaggle of burglars (Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker and Dwight Yokam) break into her new home. Zodiac (’07) is the pinnacle of this preoccupation, as cops and newspapermen (Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.) pursue the specter of a murderer we all know will never be caught. But The Game is Fincher’s Vertigo (’58), right down to the San Francisco setting. It’s a movie about power and control that causes its protagonist to confront his greatest anxiety; only instead of heights, it’s the distinct trepidation of turning out just like those who bore him. Though he’s earned every privilege in the world, it’s tough not to wonder if Van Orton would give it all up, if only to be freed from his seemingly predestined place in the world.

Just as Douglas acts as a stand-in for The Game’s director, CRS could easily double as a distorted, genre movie mirror to the movie industry. Hollywood is a Babylon that opens its doors only to those who have “proven” themselves in one way or another, and then forces these guests to navigate a series of Rube Goldberg-style traps, seemingly hoping that the talented ones will survive and conform. The world distorts around Van Orton in ways he could’ve never imagined, stripping him of his own established identity and forcing him to question every one of the elaborate set pieces he’s thrust into. Even the media misleads once CRS invades his life, as TV commentator Daniel Schorr (playing himself) begins directly addressing the rich man from his television. “A staggering fifty-seven percent of American workers believe there is a very real chance they will be unemployed in the next five to seven years,” Schorr says before focusing on an indifferent Nicholas directly. “But what does that mean to a billionaire fat cat like you?” As much as it’s a critique of capitalism, this moment finds Fincher interrogating both the fears of an average working director (who can easily end up in “jail” after making the wrong movie) and the industry suits who will just as callously throw away the key to that creative’s cell.

Regardless of the movie’s subtextual aspirations, Nicholas is still a miser who deserves comeuppance for his attitude about life in general. After all, this is a businessman who ruthlessly disengages from one of his father’s old associates (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and treats his soon-to-be-companion waitress (Deborah Kara Unger) like shit, presumably because of her social standing being viewed as beneath his. We want to see Fincher’s postmodern take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol teach this silver fox curmudgeon a lesson, while simultaneously admiring Nicholas’ need to persevere. Part of the reason why The Game works so well as a motion picture is because Douglas makes us feel Van Orton’s desire to best the mysterious fuckers who’ve gone out of their way to graffiti his house and threaten his life. It’s as if Josef K from Franz Kafka’s The Trial was gifted some sliver of hope, a relentless drive that would allow him to best his persecutors. As much as we despise Nicholas as a person, we also totally get why he’s so successful. This bastard won’t be taken down without a fight.

Beyond all else, The Game is yet another example of why David Fincher is one of the great craftsmen working in movies today. The architecture of his film is as meticulously planned as the rest of his pictures, right down to the haunting score from Howard Shore. Harris Savides’ cinematography is remarkably lush, finding endless depths to the darkness that begins to creep into the whole of Nicholas’ life. For all the discussion of the movie’s labyrinthine structure and elaborate suspense gags, it’s even more impressive as a detached piece of cinematic dexterity. Fincher has always been a magician, combining old school design with cutting edge technology, never allowing us to see the seams of his illusions. But this attention to formal blending is what makes the whole of The Game so acutely intoxicating. We’re invited into a world that very much looks like our own, before having the rug completely pulled out from under our feet by ghosts we can never meet. All the while, Fincher is chuckling behind the camera, his darkly ironic sense of humor masking his own malaise – a fear that no matter how he good or successful he is, Hollywood could take it all away if his next picture doesn’t make any money.

The Game screens at our Alamo Loudon location today. Get your tickets here.