Film reviews

The Game (1997) – Blu-ray Review

From Arrow Academy, a deluxe limited edition of 1997’s The Game – the third film from director David Fincher – arrives on Blu-ray.  Included in the set is a fully restored 2K print, a 200 page book (which we had not seen at the time of review), an isolated music and effects track, a new commentary from film critic Nick Pinkerton, an interview with co-writer John Brancato, and ‘Men on the Chessboard: The Hidden Pleasures of The Game’ – a visual essay on the themes of the film, by critic Neil Young.

There is also a 4:3, Academy ratio version of the film, complete with introduction to demonstrate how Fincher was able to get best use of the 1990’s pan and scan method for creating home video, pre-widescreen TV, in order to lose as little of his vision as possible.  There is also a short archive interview with Michael Douglas that is only a few minutes long.  There is a second disc – a DVD – that is the special edition previously released.

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Of the new features, none really stand out: the commentary is very dry, though with Fincher it is likely any analysis of thought processes will have at least some merit, as there has not been a more meticulous planner of a shot since Stanley Kubrick – to whom it fair to say that Fincher, rather than the more commonly cited Christopher Nolan, bears the most resemblance amongst currently active Western filmmakers.  The visual essay is an interesting little curio that makes good use of putting words to certain scenes in the film to make a point, and the pan and scan version of the film is yet another reminder of the care this director puts into his work.

The most enjoyable and interesting feature is ‘Fool’s Week’ – the John Brancato interview.  As a subject, he comes across in a fashion not dissimilar to Bob Gale, writer of the Back to the Future trilogy: that he is very amiable, low key, and modest, with a passing physical resemblance to that writer.  He discusses how he came up with the original idea – which could have been a Kiefer Sutherland project – how he found working with Fincher, the compromises over humour in the script (which was an area the director wanted played down, as he felt it not to be a strength of his), and Brancato’s feelings on the end result.  In short, none of specials are a standout, and the artwork for the pack is not too inspired; this release works on the sheer accumulation of bonus features. However, the combination of new and old, along with the sheer breadth of topics and types of extra included here, makes the set, overall, something of a definitive statement on the film.

As for the film itself, The Game sits in an awkward period between the far more successful Seven (which took circa three times the box office of this film), and the more lauded Fight Club.  As such, it is something of an underappreciated gem, sitting in the shadow of at very least five other films from this filmmaker’s canon: with it having nothing of the profile of those films, Zodiac, Gone Girl, or his remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  That is a great shame, as it stands comparison with any of them, and can be considered better than a good few of them.

The story concerns Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a rich investment banker, living in a large and austere mansion outside of San Francisco.  He has split from his wife, and has a commitment to work that seems to leave him little time for – or interest in – friendships.  His days are spent working, playing sport, or eating at fine restaurants.  As we join him, he is approaching his 48th birthday.  That is of significance to Nicholas, as his father committed suicide on his own 48th birthday – a turn of events that no-one had seen coming.

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Nicholas has a younger brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), from whom he is also estranged, or, at very least, sees infrequently.  Conrad is not the success his brother has been, and the film hints at mental health and substance abuse issues, that Nicholas can never be completely sure Conrad has put in the past.  Meeting Nicholas at a restaurant, Conrad presents Nicholas, as a birthday present, with a voucher for a game offered by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Details of what is involved are scant, as the experience is tailored, and as such, different every time.  Conrad claims to have taken part in this highly personalised experience, and that it has changed his life.

Though sceptical, Nicholas contacts the company, and agrees to a day of psychometric testing – including deeply personal questions about his sexual proclivities and his values.  He is called later, by CRS, to be told his application has been rejected.  From there, it is wise not to give too much more away to anyone who has not seen this.  In short, Van Orton is forced into a series of circumstances where he believes his finances and his safety are at risk; he becomes unsure if what he experiences is real, and what is created as a part of the ‘game’ experience, and he is left unsure of who, if anyone, he can trust.

The Game is to a man’s 40s what Fight Club was to a man’s late 20s/early 30s: it is a mid-life crisis on film, dealing with deep-seated dissatisfaction with modern life.  Nicholas is a man with everything and nothing.  Though lacking the venality of Gordon Gecko – the Wall Street character for which Douglas won an Oscar, Van Orton lacks interest in – and empathy for – his fellow man.  He has become disengaged from relationships, and has reached a point where he knows the price of everything (wearing $2000 shoes for example) but the value of nothing, as, seemingly, he finds little enjoyment in anything.

The film skilfully walks the tightrope of not portraying the man as a cliché: he is not entirely unlikeable, he is just lonely, and unable to see that he has created his own misery – without even appearing to have spotted he is miserable.  There is something a little Ebenezer Scrooge about this man living in an ivory tower, with plenty of money, but no lasting footprint on the world, outside of business.  He appears to pity his brother, without realising that, at very least, Conrad has learned how to embrace living.

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The Game works for many reasons.  It is hard not to look at Michael Douglas in this and not miss the days where he was a leading man, dominating almost every scene of a film.  Perhaps few actors in film history have portrayed the grey areas of human behaviour more effectively – he proved able, year after year, to play men that have severe moral failings, without alienating the audience.  He is in top form here.  This property is a perfect fit for David Fincher, and The Game comes into its own on home release, as it allows for pausing and rewatches.  The level of detail in each sequence, and even each shot, leaves so many things to find through the many viewings this film will reward.  Characters pop-up, we think they look familiar, only to find they were in the back of shot in an earlier scene.  The level of orchestration the in-story game has put around Nicholas is astounding, and the director ensures that is conveyed to us – however subtly.

At 23 years of age, this film meets no specific milestone prompting this release, but it is welcome anyway, as a celebration of possibly the most underappreciated film in David Fincher’s body of work.  With a terrific cast, right down to the most minor roles, a level of attention to detail that few directors can match, and a story that will compel rapt concentration, The Game is required viewing.

The Game is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.

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