An unsettling, paranoia-inducing suspenser about an extreme form of invasion of privacy, “The Game” is a high-toned mind-game of a movie. Crafted with a commanding, aloof precision by David Fincher in his first outing since hitting the jackpot with “Seven,” this unusual dive into the ambiguous world of an undefined pastime without apparent rules generates a chilly intellectual intrigue that will arouse buffs, trendies and techies more than it will mainstream auds. This first release by Polygram’s newly formed domestic distribution arm is likely to stir initial B.O. interest in urban and more upscale markets, but doesn’t look to be more than a middle-distance runner in general situations.
Despite its profound darkness and gruesomeness, “Seven” overcame these seeming commercial liabilities due to its genuine distinction and the star turns of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, the latter of whom contributed some all-important warmth. “The Game” projects the same sense of suffocating enclosure and mounting despair in a style that will inevitably be compared to that of Stanley Kubrick in its steely technical mastery and remote, disenchanted worldview, all in the service of a story that resembles a highbrow puzzle as much as it does an involving narrative.
With a nod to his Oscar-winning role of Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street,” Michael Douglas here plays Nicholas Van Orton, a fabulously wealthy San Francisco investment banker whose forbidding coldness sets the tone for the picture. Ruthless in his business dealings and curt, even cutting in his personal interactions, the divorced, childless man is so antisocial that he prefers to dine alone in his opulent mansion while watching financial reports on CNN, even on his birthday.
This year he has reached the same age, 48, his father was when the man jumped to his death before young Nicholas’ eyes. Nicholas’ younger brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), has gone the opposite route into disreputable addictions of all kinds. But when the jumpy fellow turns up after a long absence and offers Nicholas a card giving him entree to unusual “entertainment” courtesy of something called Consumer Recreation Services, the behaviorally rigid businessman eventually succumbs to curiosity and checks it out.
The setup provided by John Brancato and Michael Ferris in their provocative script draws in the viewer just as inevitably as it does Nicholas. Interviewing with CRS rep Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn) in the company’s plush offices, Nicholas submits to extensive tests to determine just what sort of “vacation” he will experience. “We provide — whatever is lacking,” Feingold teasingly explains, and a colleague who has already been through it further tantalizes the skeptical Nicholas by quoting scripture: “Whereas once I was blind, now I can see.”
Thus primed for an unusual trip, Nicholas, who is accustomed to having everything exactly his own way, is stunned to be informed that CRS has rejected him. That night, however, in a darkly funny sequence, a Daniel Schorr newscast becomes oddly split between routine announcing and direct address to Nicholas; it is merely the first of many increasingly disorienting and ultimately threatening events that turn Nicholas’ life upside down and inside out.
Early on, it becomes clear that one of the film’s main themes is the cracking of complacency, the disruption of the meticulous control its string-pulling protagonist exercises over virtually aspect of his life. Nicholas continues to go about his business, engineering the ouster of a distinguished old publisher (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who was a close friend of his father, and persists in callous treatment of other people. But untoward events begin besetting him — waiters spill things on him, a CRS pen stains his shirt, his briefcase won’t open — to the point that he decides that the Game is in force, and that everything that happens to him is a prank.
Nicholas makes a human connection of sorts when an offending waitress, Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), admits that she was paid to spill drinks on him. Matters take more sinister turns when CRS’ offices appear to have vanished, compromising photographs of Nicholas and a woman very like Christine are found in a hotel room Nicholas never occupied, a private investigator is caught following him, and Nicholas’ home is disfigured by graffiti and black light.
From here, Nicholas is sucked into avortex of complete paranoia and uncertainty. After being fired upon by apparent CRS hit men and drugged, he eventually wakes up somewhere in Latin America as a penniless nobody. The sense of entitlement and assurance to which he was always accustomed is gone, and the final half-hour is devoted to his desperate attempt to get to the bottom of what has befallen him, to determine what is real and what is not, and to know who is responsible for his weird trip; as he says, “I want to meet the wizard.”
The Alice in Wonderland aspect to this odyssey without road map is explicitly suggested by the use of the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” as the film’s nominal theme song, and the viewer is adroitly kept in the dark as long as Nicholas is when it comes to knowing where, if anywhere, the limits to the Game exist.
The film itself is limited by the material’s nature as a brainy exercise and by its narrow focus; individual response will depend upon how tantalized one is by puzzles and games, as well as upon how off-putting one finds the central character, who is center-stage throughout.
But the film is more than a technical exercise, as the overriding notion of control vs. chaos is actively engaged throughout, with the specter of the total loss of privacy always lurking in the background.
Regardless of how far one chooses to buy into “The Game” — and the ending ambiguously suggests that it could go on and on — there is no doubt as to Fincher’s staggering expertise as a director and his almost clinical sense of precision. Every effect seems utterly planned and predetermined, as in the Game itself, with nothing left to chance. Nicholas’ pampered, cloistered lifestyle could not be more fully expressed, and the small increments by which his existence is eroded are unnervingly conveyed. It’s a film one can easily admire without exactly embracing it.
In addition to “Wall Street,” Douglas’ performance here reminds at times of “Falling Down” in its function as a prism reflecting society’s pressures and extremes. The actor not only has no problem projecting Nicholas’ hardness and authority, but he deftly notes the man’s discomfort at having to deal with any human frailty or vulnerable emotion. He carries the picture well.
Penn pops up only intermittently, his quicksilver personality used to contrast the ne’er-do-well brother with his control-freak sibling. As the initially affable CRS functionary, Rebhorn stands out amongst the rest of the well-chosen cast members.
Technically, the film is immaculate, with Harris Savides’ sleek lensing, Jeffrey Beecroft’s rich production design, James Haygood’s intricate editing, Howard Shore’s brooding score and the dense sound work all making important contributions to a work carefully calculated to the tiniest detail.