Movies We Love: The Game


The Game (1997)

Think of it as a great vacation, except you don’t go to it, it comes to you.


Wealthy-beyond-belief Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is gifted entrance into a strange game by his prodigal brother Conrad (Sean Penn). He goes in for extensive testing, and when he’s told he doesn’t qualify, the game begins in earnest, testing his wits, physical strength and the emotional scarring caused by witnessing his father’s suicide as a child. He allies himself with a beautiful waitress (Deborah Kara Unger) and watches his life fall apart all around him as he desperately tries to figure out what the object of the game is. Nothing is real, no one can be trusted, and he brought the conspiracy that plagues him upon himself.

Why We Love It

I have to admit to being a little obsessed with twists lately – namely the fine art of lying to an audience for several hours while attempting to get them on your side. It’s a dangerous line to walk, and most filmmakers that attempt it fall short. After all, it goes against the basics of human nature. We’re drawn to people who we trust, people that seem honest, people who act like they’re giving us a straight deal.

Director David Fincher does the opposite with this film. Of course there’s a certain agreement between the audience and the filmmaker when it comes to thrillers, but Fincher won’t let the audience in on anything with this one. The normal list of clues given to help the audience along is tossed out of a taxi as it crashes into the reservoir. Part noir, part thriller, part Hitchcockian wet dream, The Game achieves a feat by only giving the audience as much information as it gives its main character. And that nearly destroys him.

Every aspect of the film is well done. Fincher creates a gorgeous psychological breakdown that ranges from the hot neons of graffitied mansion walls to the earthy grit of a Mexican makeshift graveyard. It also acts as a fantastic bridge between the darkness of Se7en and the satire of Fight Club.

What’s a mystery to me is how the story ended up so tightly wrapped. The Game originated as a spec pitch from writing pair John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who infamously gave us Catwoman, Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation). It might be the case that superhero films and large-scale science fiction just isn’t their wheelhouse. It might be the case that they are better suited to taut thrillers. It might also be the case that the uncredited re-writes from Andrew Kevin Walker did some major polishing. The world may never know.

On top of that brilliant story is a swarm of great acting. Michael Douglas and Sean Penn deliver both individually and with the chemistry they share as brothers – two fragile men who were raised in excess. One became a father figure at a young age. The other rebelled outward. They don’t have a lot of scenes together, but it feels like they do – mostly because their journey is the real story (and because Nicholas seems utterly alone even with he’s with other characters). Unger playing the possibly naive, possible mastermind is also fantastic casting. She carries the part with grace even when she’s falling into a dumpster full of rats (she broke a bone in her foot doing it, and the rats were real). She’s also strangely sexy and endearing, creating layers for a character who might be an innocent waitress or an actor playing an actor playing an innocent waitress.

The extras are all there – a score that’s quiet almost the entire movie except for a haunting single piano note that grows louder and louder in order for Fincher to screw with his audience even more. The design also ranges broadly from the elegant palatial lifestyle to cramped poverty. And, most of all, San Francisco is showcased beautifully, becoming a character in its own right – the maze in which Van Orton chases his tail.

But above all else, this film represents not one huge lie, but dozens. There’s a trend in Hollywood now to create twists even when they’re unnecessary. It’s become a cinematic test that most horror and thriller directors are forced to face and most of them fail. The very few that work end up becoming icons for it. The Game is something a bit different. Instead of smiling and holding the hand of the audience for three acts until pulling the ground out from under them, it refuses to play nice. Which is, actually, more honest than most thrillers. From the first ten minutes, you start to understand that the movie has no intention of setting up a false world and then revealing a twist. It plans on revealing almost nothing while the audience struggles against ignorance and frustration to figure out what the hell is going on. And until we do, we can’t turn away.

Moment We Fell in Love

Despite a ton of fantastic moments – one of my personal favorites being Van Orton ordering a roadside taco before hopping onto a bus in Mexico – there’s one that sticks out above all others. It’s the scene of the movie. It’s also where everything gets spoiled, so if you haven’t seen it, you shouldn’t read anymore.

Everyone still with me? Great.

The scene is the famous climax where Fincher and company, after lying repeatedly, throw one more huge twist onto the fire in a truly gripping scene. And then twist it again. By the time most movies reveal their twist, the audience has simply gone along for the ride, but when Nicholas Van Orton takes Christine hostage on the roof, I felt just as bewildered, frazzled, and insane as he is.

She tries to tell him that it’s all been part of the game. That it’s all fake. That his money is still safe and secure and that his entire family and group of friends is waiting on the other side of the door to wish him a happy birthday. She tells him all this as he points a gun that he apparently wasn’t supposed to have at her. She’s frantic, but he won’t listen to her because it’s all been far too convincing. As the pounding on the door to the roof grows louder and louder, Nicholas Van Orton has to make a decision. The corporation that he’s hired for the game is either going to kill him and make off with his millions or the whole experience has been for sport, a ruse to keep him entertained. The pounding gets louder, he shoves the gun into Christine’s side.

When the doors fly open, there’s a nanosecond-long Hollywood ending where Nicholas’s brother Conrad appears in a tuxedo replete with a bottle of champagne, ready to sing in celebration of his brother’s birthday. It is a sigh of relief that’s immediately drawn back in as a gasp when Nicholas instinctively pulls the trigger and murders his own brother.

Realizing what he’s done, completely stripped bare of his mental and emotional faculties, Nicholas wanders off the roof of the building and falls poetically down – just as his father did so many years before – through a glass atrium…

…and onto an inflatable safety platform. His party is already in full swing with hundreds of guests cheering and drinking champagne. His brother greets him as breakaway glass is being wiped from his eyes and assures him that it’s all been a show, a performance, that the gun was loaded with blanks.

While incredibly cathartic, this is one of the only Hollywood happy endings that makes me feel like shit. And I love it because of that.

Final Thoughts

Even though it’s a thriller and has a twist ending, it’s one of very few movies that executes all of its treachery so well that it’s easy to watch over and over again. The cardinal rule that Fincher and company are playing by is that the movie has to be grounded by a solid story, good acting, and striking visuals. It’s not enough for a writer to think he’s clever by lying to an audience for two hours, and everyone involved with The Game understood that. It’s a thriller done in the old school way of making a good movie first, and a tricky twist ending second.

As for the ending, it’s a masterstroke because Fincher delivers a happy ending that any studio would love. But it feels awful. Van Orton has gone through a hellish psychological torture, and you’ve gone along with him, and even the hugeness of relief that comes from it all being a prank (and a prank that forces him to change his perspective on life, family and friends) can’t escape the muted nature of the weight of what’s just happened. Maybe it’s all the lying, but I walked out of the theater knowing that everything was going to be okay for Van Orton, but still not quite sure that it would be.

For more movies that will warm your movie-loving heart, browse through our Movies We Love Archive.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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