Friday, September 25, 2009

Film Friday: The Game (1997)

The Game is an intelligent noir-style psychological thriller directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) and staring a super talented cast led by Michael Douglas, Deborah Unger and Sean Penn. It is a fascinating character study hidden beneath the veneer of a twisty-puzzle movie. I recommend this movie highly, though for reason that I’ll explain, you might not “like” it.

Before I get into this review, let me give the usual warning that there will be spoilers. However, I will tread lightly on the spoilers because figuring out what is really going on is the point of the movie. In fact, one of the characters even tells you: “don’t ask what the object of the game is, figuring that out is the object of the game.” So please be considerate in the comments, and if you haven't seen it, you might want to avoid the comments (just in case).


The Game tells the story of Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a high powered, ultra-rich, cynical, cold-hearted bastard investment banker. As the story begins, Van Orton’s brother Conrad (Sean Penn) arrives to give Van Orton a birthday gift -- an application to participate in a game. Van Orton soon learns that this is a personally-tailored, “experiential” game, though he doesn’t know exactly what that means.

Van Orton decides to give the game a chance, but after an extensive application process, his application is rejected. Yet, no sooner does he receive this news than the game mysteriously begins. Suddenly, a series of strange events begin occurring in his life. At first these are merely annoying and inconvenient, but soon he discovers that this may be more than a game -- it may be some sort of criminal scheme. Beyond that, I cannot give you any details except to say that the twists and turns are pretty stunning and the ending is fairly spectacular.

So Why Does The Game Work?

The Game is an intelligent and ambitious movie. It is presented as a big puzzle involving a series of twists that occur to Van Orton as he participates in the game. And on that level, the movie is quite solid. But the movie is also a fascinating character study of Nicholas Van Orton, and you really need to understand both parts to get the most out of this movie.
The Game As A Puzzle
On the surface, The Game works well as a puzzle movie. The movie challenges the viewer to solve what is really happening to Van Orton as he moves from event to event. Is it just a game? Is it something more? What do they want with him? Who else is involved?

The movie is well shot and well written. The director creates a fascinating world in which the viewer is easily immersed. It is full of fascinating locations -- from wealthy mansions to rarely used streets of San Francisco. The characters are richly drawn, and the movie is packed with talented actors who are not stars, but should be quite familiar to you on sight, e.g. James Rebhorn (Independence Day, My Cousin Vinny), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Thirteenth Floor, West Wing), Tommy Flannigan (Smoking Aces, Gladiator), and dozens more.

The story is efficient and fast paced, and includes many interesting twists and turns. Twists have become all the rage in Hollywood. In fact, you’ll hear most movies advertised now as having a twist. The problem with twist movies, however, is that most twists are simply gimmicks, i.e. they aren’t organic to the story. In other words, there is little to no evidence in the story to support the twist until it happens, and there is no particular reason in the story that the twist must happen. The classic example of this comes from movies where we suddenly learn, right after the bad guy is defeated, that the hero’s boss or best friend is the real bad guy. There is nothing in the story to make this apparent during the movie and often you get the feeling that the director flipped a coin when he hit the point where he had to reveal who the real bad guy really was. . . heads, it’s the friend; tails, it’s the boss. This is just a gimmick designed to give an otherwise dull movie some depth.

But not all twists are cynically gimmicks. Indeed, some movies use twists to expertly add a second layer to the film -- like The Sixth Sense or The Matrix. The twists in these movies entirely change the motivations of the characters. Other excellent uses for twists include movies where the twist(s) is used to present the viewer with pieces to solve the puzzle presented by the movie. The Game is such a movie. Indeed, the twists here flow naturally from the actions of the characters as they move about their purposes. And this is one of those rare twist movies where you probably won’t see the twists coming, even though the evidence for them can be found as you go along.

However, based on the criticisms I’ve seen, there are two things the viewer needs to realize before the actions of the characters will make sense: (1) Nicholas Van Orton is not an average man, and (2) this is not a normal game:
• Van Orton is brilliant. He is highly capable. His mind makes connections easily. So when, for example, he recalls a particular character eating Chinese food, this is not a plot convenience, but is instead the type of investigation that a particularly observant person could and would undertake. He is also incapable of passing up a challenge. He will not admit defeat. Thus, whereas a typical person might have tried to quit the game once it started, as it starts unpleasantly, Van Orton would rather fight than quit, which he would see as surrendering.

And to help the viewer understand this, the director cleverly puts Van Orton through an application process for the game. In that five minute segment, the audience sees Van Orton insulted, tested, and challenged, and they get to see how his responses reveal his character. They see that he is precise, uptight and always in control, and that he will never admit defeat. They also see how the game people use their new-found knowledge of him against him to hook him firmly into the game by telling him that his application was rejected -- thus turning something he was only curious about into an obsession -- and to manipulate him.

• The viewer also must realize that this game is like no game any of us has ever played. Sure they employ dozens of helpers and spent a ton of money making the game work, but they are also charging Van Orton seven figures to play the game. And while some complain that Van Orton’s conduct is often too perfect for what the game controller need, the viewer should keep in mind that there is always someone nearby to guide Van Orton should he go astray -- as multiple characters will admit during the film. What some would call coincidental was in fact the product of well-planned manipulation.
If you understand this, then The Game presents an interesting and entertaining ride.
Why You Might Not Like The Game
However, many still complain that they did not like the feel of the movie. They complain that the movie was very dark and that they did not like Van Orton. Both criticism are indeed true, but also miss the other point to the movie -- the character study.

The film is indeed starkly shot. Everything is dark, and everywhere are the trappings of extreme wealth, from the high class restaurants, to living rooms that look like steak houses, to the expensive cars, but nothing in the movie appears particularly comfortable. But this was a conscious choice by the director to use the scenery to echo the coldness of Van Orton’s personality. Indeed, the happier characters around him do not occupy such stark settings, and even Van Orton’s settings change throughout the movie. If one is simply looking for a chase movie then this will be disconcerting, but this isn’t just a chase movie.

Similarly, complaints that Van Orton is unlikable miss the fact that this movie is intended, in part, as a character study. If Van Orton was not cold-hearted and cynical, there wouldn’t be much for him to overcome. Let’s look at the character study aspect.
The Game As A Character Study
As noted above, The Game tells the story of Nicholas Van Orton, a high powered, cynical, cold-hearted bastard investment banker. Van Orton lives alone in a mansion, divorced his wife, estranged himself from his drug addict, never-do-well brother Conrad, and is making life miserable for anyone who crosses his path. He is not sadistic, he just lacks even a trace of compassion and tolerance. His world is orderly and he is unchallenged.

However, his character is really quite nuanced. Beneath the surface, Van Orton is haunted by the suicide of his father, who killed himself on Van Orton’s birthday as a child. The movie begins on Van Orton’s birthday. He has turned the same age as his father, when his father killed himself. And everyone seems to want to compare him to his father and to mention the suicide. But rather that trouble Van Orton, this only seems to annoy him. Clearly, he wants to believe that he is over the suicide, but is he really? It is possible that his need to stay in control at all times is an outgrowth of this?

Also, if he is such a rotten man, then why are we given clues that others love him and care deeply about him. And if that’s true, then what happened to change him?

As the movie goes on, Van Orton finds his life starting to spin out of control. Annoying things happen to him at first, then dangerous things. Soon the game is interfering with his work and making him question reality. He starts coming apart at the seams. And then things really start to go wrong.

That is the moment that the real Van Orton must shine through. Is he a petty tyrant who makes everyone around him fear him to get what he wants, or is he really a skilled, intelligent, capable man who can overcome challenges that face him? Can he preserver or will he give up? These are all questions that he must answer. As he does, we see his character slowly revealed and begin to change. Slowly, but surely, we see if he can become a better man as he is pushed to the edge.

And Michael Douglas is the perfect actor to pull this off. Not only do we easily believe the cold-hearted bastard that he portrays at the beginning of the film (sort of a humorless Gordon Gekko), but Douglas has the acting ability to make us feel the character’s growth, and to really feel for him as he finally swallows his pride and does things that are surprising.


All told, The Game is not the most pleasant movie, but it is an intelligent, entertaining and surprising movie. It has a great story and great characters. It is interestingly shot and full of depth, and it creates a fascinating world in which one can easily get immersed. I highly recommend it.

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LL said...

I saw the movie when it first came out, and then bought the VHS Tape, so have seen it several times.

Van Orton subconsciously is planning to follow his father's suicide. The Game allows him to act on that and at the same time find redemption.

Excellent film.

ScottDS said...

Man, I haven't seen this film in years! I've only seen it once, actually, a long time ago. I consider it the "forgotten Fincher film" since it's never mentioned in the same sentence as Se7en or Fight Club. Criterion released it on laserdisc with all the bells and whistles but none of that stuff ever made it to DVD (fingers crossed for Blu-Ray).

And good call on the character actors. These people never get the credit they deserve and are very often more entertaining than the lead actors.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, I don't want to give away anything about how the game develops, but that is certainly one of the themes.

Interestly to me, this is one of the few "twist" movies that stands up to repeated viewing. And that tells me that there is so much more to the movie that the moment of surprise.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I have long felt that the real key to a movie's believability is the supporting cast, not the main cast. The main cast can act fairly strangely because their role is to stand out from the crowd. But if you start feeling that the supporting cast is acting, then the whole films suddenly seems fake.

I think there are a great many films that have killed themselves by poorly casting the supporting cast. This is not one of those however, this supporting cast is truly talented and pulls off their roles flawlessly.

Tennessee Jed said...

I love this movie and have seen it numerous times. If you did not have the rich character implications of Van Orton, the puzzle would be a lot less interesting. It is one of those sleeper movies that is so much better than you realize on first viewing. I don't know why, but in some ways it reminds me of "House of Games."

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I agree that this is one of those hidden gems. It didn't really get "lost" per se (it made $100 million world wide) but it isn't exactly well known either.

And I agree, it is the depth of the characters that separates this from a more typical chase/suspense film.

Writer X said...

I'm not sure if I can think of one movie that starred Michael Douglas that I didn't like. This movie kept me on the edge of my seat. I loved it. Great analysis!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Writer X, Glad you liked the analysis.

To me, one of the neat things about The Game was that this was one of the few films where I wasn't able to see things coming -- it really was surprising. Very enjoyable.

I like Micheal Douglas films a lot as well. The only exception that comes to mind is Perfect Murder, which just bugged me to no end on so many levels.

Writer X said...

Andrew, it wasn't his best but then remakes (especially Hitchcock thrillers) never are. Without him, the movie would have been a lot worse.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I would agree with that. Without Douglas, that movie would have been pretty intolerable. The whole thing felt so lifeless to me, and I particularly didn't like Gweneth Paltrow's acting at all -- a wax dummy would have done a better job.

But other than that, Douglas has been in some of my favorite films, and he's always been solid in whatever role he's played.

In fact, Douglas is the kind of guy who often takes over a role and I can't imaging anyone else playing that role. For example, I can't see anyone else playing Gordon Gekko or Van Orton or Jack Colton in Romancing the Stone.

Tennessee Jed said...

Writer X and Andrew - this may have more to do with my preference in particular generas than excellence of a particular film, but here my favorite Douglas films in no particular order:

Ghosts in the Darkness, Star Chamber, Disclosure, Coma, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Wall Street.

On the "not so much" side of the ledger:

1) Black Rain 2) Romancing and Jewel (maybe the latter two seemed like too much of an Indiana Jones copy cat thing, I don't know.)

Tennessee Jed said...

sorry about spelling of genres, and of course, Andrew, "not so much" includes "Perfect Murder."

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, My favorite is Star Chamber and then probably Wall Street and The Game, but I like all the rest as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, we don't grade on spelling. :-)

Also, I should add, I really liked Romancing the Stone, but did not like Jewel of the Nile nearly as much -- very "sequelly".

Writer X said...

Jed, Fatal Attraction still gives me nightmares. Regarding Romancing the Stone, I'm still a sucker for Jack Coltin.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I wonder why you like "Star Chamber." LOL. I don't much care for Douglas off-screen, but he is one of those actors who can make you forget that when he's on-screen, and I have liked or really liked most of his movies. I find it much harder to get past Sean Penn's loathsomeness off or on screen, so I watched The Game reluctantly. Damn. It was really good. You review is a fine explanation of why it was good. PS: I rooted for the "bad" judges in Star Chamber, but that comes from sitting too long on the bench in Ventura (aka "Hangtown").

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Thanks. The one thing that bothered me about the Star Chamber was that I didn't believe the law was as bad as they made it out to be, though I never looked.

JG said...

Now I want to watch this again! This is a favorite in our house.

Individualist said...


I liked Romancing the Stone and Jewel was OK but sequelly.

I think that Douglas, Turner and DeVito were best together in War of the Roses.

The Game was a good film but I forget the details. Good Review!

AndrewPrice said...

JG, Good movie to have on the favorites list!

Individualist, Thanks. I do like the combo of Turner, Douglas and Devito a lot. I think they had great chemistry. It's too bad they didn't do more movies together.

Deborah Richmond said...

Just discovered this movie on Netflix and thought it was amazingly good. It's so hard to find a movie with a great plot. When you do, it's such a thrill.

I enjoyed your analysis too. I love a movie that, when it ends, I'm not sure I've caught all of the nuances and have to think back. Your analysis helped me catch a couple things I hadn't realized while watching the movie.

I rarely watch movies twice, but I'm thinking of watching this one again!

AndrewPrice said...

Deborah, Great! I'm glad you enjoyed the film and I'm glad my analysis gave you some things to watch for! :)

I too love movies that make me want to watch them again just to see what I missed!

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