Often lost among David Fincher’s monumental body of work is The Game, a weird little film that turned 25 this month. It released two years after Fincher made his mark in Hollywood with what was arguably his true feature debut, Se7en, and five years after an Alien franchise installment nearly had the already-prolific music video director swearing off movies for the rest of his life. But where Se7en was a hit, The Game—though it generally received positive reviews, including one from Roger Ebert—was not. It brought middling returns at the box office compared to the success of Fincher’s previous film, and made audiences both “hostile and bewildered,” as Fincher explained during the film’s release.
Now, The Game is neither forgotten gem nor cult classic. Fincher himself even writes it off as a film he shouldn’t have made. The director talked about how his wife, producer Ceán Chaffin, had a bad feeling about The Game from the start. Looking back, he believes that the film’s third act wasn’t properly handled. He opted at the time to “keep [his] foot on the throttle” in order to make it “liberating and funny.” But I—and many others, I’m sure—would argue that this isn’t a bad thing. In that same interview, Fincher admits that what initially drew him to the film was his love of an unpredictable plot, going on to begrudge the then-growing discontent among movie audiences to give themselves over to a narrative that isn’t necessarily going to hold their hand. Movies like The Game just don’t get made anymore.
The first time I watched The Game, over two years ago at this point, bringing my Fincher filmography blind spots down from three to two (I’ve still unintentionally neglected Benjamin Button and Panic Room), it surprised me. But if you’ve seen the film, that isn’t very surprising. For one, I didn’t expect the credits roll of the film—Fincher, like David Cronenberg, steadfastly committed to a luxuriating credits sequence which precedes the narrative—to be nearly identical in all except score to that of Succession. I also didn’t expect the film to basically be, well, when you think about it, a far more convoluted version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Instead of being visited by three harmless spirits of past, present and future, this miserly, curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge is taught the error of his ways when his drug addict brother gifts him a game that throws Scrooge into the grips of (what appears to be) a real-life plot against him. This unravels Scrooge/Nick. He questions everyone and everything around him, nearly gets killed, and…kills his brother as well as himself.
Of course, those last two developments were a part of the game all along, which leads me to the endlessly surprising plot of the film itself. It’s so far-fetched and twisty by the very nature of the game that Nicholas van Orton (Michael Douglas) reluctantly decides to partake in at the urging of his reckless, playboy brother, Conrad “Connie” (Sean Penn) that it oversteps Fincher’s usually perfect bridging of prestige and pulp to become something that transcends either designation. Tailored to each specific player, the game is left ambiguous: What it is and how exactly it may vary from person to person remains elusive. In Nick’s case, it’s a seemingly never-ending series of double-crosses and conspiracies that soften the line between reality and fiction so acutely that the line becomes a smudge. There’s no one Nick can trust, least of all himself, and by the time each narrative Russian nesting doll has finally been uncovered, it’s unclear how the man would not suffer from PTSD for the rest of his life. Instead, the game was simply a way for Connie to let his brother know he was “becoming an asshole.”
And he certainly was. Nicholas van Orton is a multi-millionaire investment banker from a wealthy family. He displays a near-caricature level of bourgeois ambivalence and disdain. He views people below his financial standing as physically beneath him, he feels entitled to other peoples’ time without giving anyone his own and he lets the few close relationships in his life fall to the wayside in favor of work. Everyone else is always an inconvenience. He is Scrooge in everything but name and time period, and Fincher himself even characterized Nick as a mixture of “Scrooge, lured into a Mission: Impossible situation with a steroid shot in the thigh from The Sting.” As a child, Nick watched his father jump off the roof of his family’s home and kill himself at age 48—the same age Nick turns when Connie gives him “the game.”
Though Fincher looks back on his third film with some disdain, Douglas does not. In fact, Douglas said he was proud that The Game left audiences guessing, remarking that it’s one of his films that people still come up to him to tell him they love. And Douglas—then at the tail-end of his run as an erotic thriller king—finds his perfect ‘90s send-off in Nicholas van Orton. As Nick, Douglas, with his deep-set eyes and resting scowl primed for evoking contempt, displays a cartoonish level of persistent scorn that never quite becomes campy or melodramatic. Nick is always prepped with a sarcastic quip to get the final word, even as his composure unravels to distinctly comedic effect.
The Game is never intentionally funny. But while always serious in tone and thematically similar to other Fincher films, it is narratively and atmospherically one of Fincher’s lighter, more buoyant films. Tonally, it falls pretty squarely in line with the type of fare that makes up the pulpy thriller (and Mank) director’s filmography. You watch The Game and it is unmistakably populated by Fincher hallmarks: The desaturated greens and seedy cityscapes, neo-noir elements and a discontented, isolated lead prone to darker impulses. There’s a breathless pacing evocative of Fincher’s next film, Fight Club. But The Game is faster, looser and lighter on its feet. It’s a nonstop thrill ride, if that ride were intent on continuously defying the laws of physics and finding new ways to loop-de-loop.
Yet perhaps what sets The Game apart among Fincher’s work is that it is easily the most palpably absurd. It’s reductive to say that the film is “silly.” But it’s silly. It’s Fincher’s silliest film, and it’s his most fun. In retrospect, perhaps that’s why Fincher now detests it so much. But now, watching The Game feels somewhat revolutionary. You are, essentially, playing this game alongside Nick. There is never a moment, until the conclusion, where you can trust Fincher’s film any more than Nick can trust the people and situations he encounters as he continues to play his game. As Fincher put it shortly after the film’s release, “Movies usually make a pact with the audience that says: We’re going to play it straight. What we show you is going to add up. But we don’t do that.” At every turn, the narrative of The Game reminds you that it is not in agreement with its audience. Constantly, we are cheated and double-crossed. We are as unclear about what is the game and what is real life as Nick is. But, like Nick, we continue to play. We all want to see where it ends
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.