Very rarely does the protagonist’s inability to show any kind of emotion primarily drive the film forward. But in David Fincher’s The Game, Nicholas Van Orton is distant, detached, cold and persistently unimpressed, which is what gives the story a reason to begin, helps it progress and doesn’t let it resolve until there’s a tear or a smile coming from Michael Douglas’ character. This film seems like it will do anything to break Van Orton through ongoing scare tactics and riddles. Stimulating chases become a constant aggravation in this noir-meets-action film which is at the same time a serious matter and a game.
In his late forties, businessman Nicholas Van Orton lives alone in the huge mansion that his father left him after he committed suicide. Every morning, he goes to work in the Financial District and then comes back home to have his homemade burger on a silver tray and watch the news on TV. He’s alone by choice, he’s disconnected and he sees no other way to be. And just when it starts looking like the superiority and the isolation that comes with it is what he’s designed to carry on with, his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) meets up with him and gives him his birthday present. The Game.
From this point onwards random keys, fake ambulances with fake injured, fired waitresses using model homes and dead clowns who seem to have jumped off the balcony start appearing. And through all this, an ongoing manipulation becomes evident, someone’s messing with our main character, but no one knows who and why. Most importantly, it is unclear as to how far that certain someone is capable of going. Is this just a hoax or something more dangerous? Should Van Orton sit back and enjoy the game or has it become a life-threatening chase during which sitting back is definitely not an option?
This very intelligent and full-of-twists script sign John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris who set the perfect pace and give us an all-packed-with-clever-action noir which contains just the right amount of dialogue. The story is extremely clever although some might argue that a few holes are visible here and there. Even if we are to accept this, one or two questions and ambiguities in places certainly don’t spoil the fun. If anything, they keep the audience even more hooked and leave us wondering and re-thinking about everything in the end. The Game is a riddle for a long time after its first viewing. And it seems to require several sit-throughs before all the pieces of the puzzle are finally connected.
David Fincher’s (Seven) direction is taking darkness to another level here. Yes, there are many sinister pranks, moments, chases, humour, but mostly, he directs his characters and story in the night and this is what makes every sequence that little bit more intimidating. Very rarely in the film does the audience witness anything taking place in daylight. Those few times that it does happen, however, we get to relax a little, compose ourselves and get ready for yet another obscure moment in the darkness.
But there is one thing that needs to be made clear — there would be no Nicholas Van Orton without Michael Douglas. The role fits him like a glove and whatever attributes or lines he’s given by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris and no matter how much nighttime fear he’s thrown into by David Fincher, Van Orton is made the actor’s own, almost entirely. Next to him, Deborah Kara Unger and Sean Penn offer just the right amount of antagonistic help for this stone-cold character to get to see his whole life being torn to pieces. Indeed, there’s a great satisfaction in finally getting some emotion out of a living-dead businessman and a magnificent thrill out of putting a person who has everything under control, through hell. The Game is kind enough to provide us with that opportunity.