By Marc S. Sanders
David Fincher is a director always focused on playing tricks with the viewer’s mind. His earliest films from Alien 3 (a poor installment in a celebrated franchise) to Se7en (an unrealistic yet frighteningly suspenseful serial killer story) to his third motion picture The Game, a movie that throws you off from the beginning of each scene to the end of each scene are best examples of this technique. It’s a little jarring, and I’m happy to watch it that way.
This film only works if you mask what’s really happening by showing you what’s fake instead. I know I sound vague but those that have seen The Game would probably agree that is the point. It’s based off a screenplay (by John Brancato & Michael Faris) that strategizes itself like a Dungeon Master setting up a Friday night in the basement with some buddies to play some role playing games with a 20 sided die.
Michael Douglas is really the only guy who could play Nicholas Van Orton, a millionaire with everything but really has nothing; no friends, no spouse (any longer), no one to care about. Beyond his fortune, all he has are a weirdly estranged brother, played by Sean Penn, and his attorney only there to ask Nicky “Should I be worried?” The film takes place during Nick’s 48th birthday. Normally, the song would go “Happy Birthday Nicky.” However, for Douglas’ cold protagonist, the lyrics are “Happy Birthday Mr. Van Orton.” A man with everything, who really has nothing.
Penn gives him a card with a number to call. This is his birthday present to Nicky. Then the paranoia presents itself little by little; a wooden clown doll, a tv that talks to Nick, a leaky pen, spilled drinks, and soon Nicky’s life is threatened.
Why are these things happening? What’s with the keys? What’s with the waitress who keeps turning up, played by Debra Kara Unger so effectively that she arguably carries the riddles most convincingly? Unger is brilliant at twisting the story over and over. Another great player is well recognized character actor, the late James Rebhorn (also known from Scent of a Woman) who gets the ball rolling and then wraps up the answers later on.
Fincher plays with the mind quietly but never at a slow pace. There’s a consistent tinkling of piano keys that seem to work as puzzle pieces being matched up. It’s much more disturbing to go this route than with grand horns and bass.
When I saw The Game initially in 1997, I started to piece together how to write multi dimensional characters. There’s a past that gnaws at Nick’s psyche sprinkled with glimpses of his father committing suicide. Fincher offers up a background to Nick by means of grainy home movie footage. It all seems quick and taken for granted but it’s necessary to understand Douglas’ cold demeanor and it circles back beautifully towards the film’s unexpected ending. It works so well as a motivator for Nick that I often circle back to its presentation when I write my own scripts.
There’s a great, short scene that sets up the 3rd act. Probably Michael Douglas’ best scene ever in a film, in my opinion. Nick walks into a diner in a dirty suit with scratches on his face. He asks for everyone’s attention and offers up his last $18 to anyone who can offer him a ride. The character is humbled and changed. An arc is completing itself on the other end. It’s a scene that maybe doesn’t belong here until you realize it does. In another director’s hands, a scene like this would be cut or never shot. Fincher took advantage of Douglas’ technique for substituting intimidating power with humble gratitude to simply be able to just ask for a favor. A new character is born in a most efficient 90 seconds of film. It’s a great moment.
See The Game whether you haven’t seen it yet or to watch it again to remind yourself how all the pieces come together.
You might argue that this can’t be realistic but suspend your disbelief because that is what David Fincher always strives for. You’ll be glad you did. Trust me, or maybe…don’t trust anyone?!?!?!?