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The Criterion Completist – The Game (1997)

October 7, 2012


written by: John Brancato and Michael Ferris

produced by: Ceán Chaffin and Steve Golin

directed by: David Fincher

rated R (language and for some violence and sexuality)

runtime: 129 min.

U.S. release date: September 12, 1997

DVD/Blu-ray release date: March 31, 1998

Criterion release date: September 18, 2012


The 1990s will be remembered as a fertile time for filmmaking, and a number of master-class directors like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, and David Fincher all released key, ground-breaking movies during this time.  Fincher had already rocked the film world in 1995 with “Se7en, before releasing “The Game” in 1997, a film fondly remembered by most people, but somewhat forgotten until Criterion’s recent rerelease.

Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a wealthy investment banker who lives by himself in the mansion which he grew up in.  He is cold, ruthless businessman, obsessed and driven by his work, and as a result, he is divorced, has no friends and a non-existent social life.  On his forty-eighth birthday, he goes out to lunch with his younger brother Conrad  (Sean Penn, excellently playing a character that was supposed to go to Jodi Foster), an unpredictable screw-up who’s been in and out of rehab, and who gives Nicholas an interesting birthday gift.  As Conrad puts it: “What do you get for the man who has…everything?” 

It’s an invitation to take part in a “game” run by a company called CRS, which stands for Consumer Recreation Services.  Nicholas is reluctant at first, but eventually restlessness and curiosity get the better of him. He calls the number on the card and goes in for an appointment.  Days later, he gets a brusque phone call from CRS telling him that his application for the game was denied, yet later that night, as arrives home from work, he finds a strange clown doll lying in his driveway.  Nicholas starts his descent into a rabbit hole of chaos and paranoia as his world slowly and completely comes crashing down around him, with the suspense deriving from what is and what is not part of the game.  At this point, I am going to refrain from giving away any more of the plot, as the impact of the film derives solely from the twists and turns of the narrative, and the movie is best enjoyed with as little prior knowledge as possible.

Michael Douglas is perfect for a role like this, having already played the archetypal American male, successful in business and life, in movies like “Wall Street”, “Fatal Attraction”¸ and “The American President“, and the supporting roles (like James Rebhorn and Armin Mueller-Stahl) are strong throughout, especially Deborah Kara Unger in a breakthrough role as Christine, a waitress who gets accidentally (or not?) embroiled in Van Orton’s downfall.



David Fincher’s films have always been about obsessions, and the consequences that befall characters when their control is stripped away from them.  “The Game” is a straight forward homage to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, from the paranoia and slowly building suspense, to the “Vertigo“­ inspired locale of San Francisco.  In a more modern context, dismantling the life of a millionaire businessman like Van Orton acts as a sort of satire of the late 90s economic explosion.

Unfortunately, problems with the plot mechanics make “The Game a faulty exercise in the suspense genre.  There are just too many perfect coincidences and unbelievable stretches in plausibility to make it work (does San Francisco not have a functioning police force?).  This especially becomes evident in the infamous ending, which piles on so many rapid fire plot twists, that the payoff seems forced and downright ludicrous.  In a way, “The Game was Fincher’s dry run for his upcoming “Fight Club, a superior film, in my opinion, and one that better explores our over-reliance on consumer goods and technology, and the nightmares of the loss of self-identity.

The Criterion edition is a relatively bare-bones display, offered in single disc Blu-Ray and two disc DVD editions.  An excellent essay on “The Game” by film professor David Sterritt (who likes it more than I did) can be read on Criterion’s website, and the film is currently streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly.





Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL.  Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992.  He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.

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