Before his ascension to Oscar-sanctioned respectability with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Social Network," David Fincher was a cult filmmaker par excellence. "Se7en" (1995) and "Fight Club" (1999) quickly entered the fanboy pantheon, but it was the thriller he made in between, "The Game" (1997), that is perhaps most overdue for reappraisal.
Widely dismissed (and not without reason) as a gimmicky prank at the time of its release, Fincher's third feature has just been issued on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. Fifteen years on, "The Game" retains much of its pleasure as an immersive waking nightmare and some of its power to surprise — which is itself something of a surprise, given the common criticism that it relied too much on a deflating final twist.
If anything, repeat viewings soften the brazen implausibility of the conclusion and might even help rationalize its existence.
As the title and the original jigsaw-piece poster suggest, this is perhaps the most blatant and most self-reflexive example of the obsession with narrative gamesmanship in '90s American cinema.
Down to the San Francisco locations that call to mind "Vertigo," "The Game" suggests a postmodern Hitchcock pastiche. Like Scottie in "Vertigo," the film's hero, Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), an old-money investment banker and all-around jerk, is haunted by a figure in free fall: not a mystery blond but his father, who killed himself on his 48th birthday, jumping off the roof of the family mansion in full view of his young son. (Repeated flashbacks take the form of Super-8 home movies.)
On the occasion of his own 48th birthday, Nicholas receives a gift certificate from his shiftless brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), to be redeemed at a new company called Consumer Recreation Services for — well, no one will say what exactly, and the mystery surrounding the so-called Game gets Nicholas hooked.
The Game turns out to be an elaborate role-playing exercise that erases the boundaries between the real and the staged for its player-victim. It begins with a few creep-out incursions — an ominous clown doll appears in Nicholas' driveway, a news anchor starts talking to him through the TV screen — and accelerates once he becomes entangled with a sultry and decidedly untrustworthy waitress (Deborah Kara Unger).
As the misanthropic Nicholas endures an elaborate comeuppance and several near-death experiences — Douglas' deft performance is a kind of greatest-hits composite, combining elements of his roles in "Wall Street," "Fatal Attraction" and "Falling Down" — he succumbs to total paranoia. Nothing is as it seems; no one can be trusted.
Mind-game movies have existed at least since the German Expressionist classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." But the form came of age in the midcentury modernist heyday of the art film, in great works by Luis Bunuel, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette and others.
For whatever reason — millennial dread, the rise of virtual worlds and interactive storytelling, the total absorption of postmodern ideas into popular culture — puzzle movies were a staple of American movies in the late '90s and into the early 21st century.
"The Game" came two years after "The Usual Suspects," which also ended with a rug-pulling flourish that was as much negation as twist. It was followed a year later by "The Truman Show," which could also be read as an egomaniac's ultimate paranoid nightmare/fantasy (the entire world revolves around him).
"The Game" lacks the gotcha impact of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" and the architectural elegance of Christopher Nolan's "Memento" or David Lynch's "Lost Highway" and "Mulholland Drive." Taken at face value it's beyond trite: a redemption story in the fashion of "A Christmas Carol" or "It's a Wonderful Life," with obligatory religious overtones. Someone explains the Game to Nicholas by way of a biblical quote: "Whereas once I was blind now I can see."
A more satisfying interpretation perhaps is to look at the Game — and "The Game" — as its own reason for being, a celebration of artifice and make-believe for its own sake, a wry tribute to the wicked joy and megalomania of filmmaking. Obsession is both a theme and a method for Fincher: much like his later "Zodiac," "The Game" is driven by its protagonist's urgent need to make sense of things, and in both cases the process is the point, not the outcome.
A sympathetic viewer could argue that the anticlimax, which seems so absurd and throwaway on a first viewing, is as apt an ending as any. At the very least it's an acknowledgment that no explanation could be satisfactory, that no resolution could match the pleasure of the game itself.