Movie Discussion: David Fincher’s The Game (1997)

  • Monthly Theme: Best of the 1990sgame_xlg
  • The Film: The Game
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: September 12, 1997
  • Studio: Polygram, et al.
  • Distributer: Polygram
  • Domestic Gross: $48 million
  • Budget: $50 million (estimated)
  • Director: David Fincher
  • Producers: Steve Golin, et al.
  • Screenwriters: John Brancato & Michael Ferris
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Harris Savides
  • Make-Up/FX: Cliff Wenger, et al.
  • Music: Howard Shore
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. Hollywood stars Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. Canadian character actress Deborah Kara Unger.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: “Players wanted.”
  • The Lowdown: David Fincher’s mindfuck thriller is about a pampered millionaire (Michael Douglas in full and glorious diva mode) who is given an unusual birthday present – a chance to participate in a fully immersive “game” run by a shadowy multinational corporation. But he soon finds himself paired up with a brassy femme fatale (Deborah Kara Unger) and running for his life across San Francisco. Are the life-threatening dangers he faces all a part of the game? Or is the game just a façade for an actual conspiracy?

If you haven’t seen The Game our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Kristine: I have things to say about The Game, but you are going to have to do the heavy lifting on this one. I was underwhelmed. I am willing to be convinced it is a great film, but it will require convincing.

Sean: I am so mad.

Kristine: I have liked all the other movies this month.

Sean: Yes, you’ve been a very good girl of late.

Kristine: Shut up. Can I start off with a question?

Sean: Yes. And I will do my best to make a compelling case for the movie.

Kristine: What made you pick The Game over Se7en? Not that I am saying that Se7en is a better movie, but I do think it is a more conventional horror choice.

It’s called foreshadowing.

Sean: Kristine, I literally saw Se7en like, once the year it came out and have never re-watched it since. I barely remember it. I just have images in my brain of Kevin Spacey lurching around and Brad Pitt being dumb. Oh, and Gwyneth’s head in a box, of course. I don’t know if I can answer that question.

Kristine: It is one of the few “scary” movies I had ever seen at the time it came out. I remember being upset by the deaths of some of the victims.

Sean: I don’t even remember a single murder or act of violence outside of Gwyneth’s head. Isn’t that funny? Also, it’s hilarious that Se7en once upset you and now you’re all, ‘Martyrs this, A Serbian Film that.’

Kristine: I know. Gwyneth’s cranium didn’t upset me at all. I remember an emaciated person being chained down and eating his tongue, and a stupid jump-take when you think he is dead but he is still alive. That scared me. And there was a fatty chained to a table and forced to eat spaghetti (???) until he exploded. So dumb, but it upset me at the time.

Sean: I guess the easy answer to your question is that since the theme of this month is “Sean’s Favorites from the 1990s,” the fact that I hate Se7en is the reason I didn’t pick it. Especially because the 1990s are a notoriously bleak decade in horror, when very few good horror movies were made. Plus, I legitimately think The Game is scarier than Se7en, despite Se7en possessing more conventional “horror” elements.

Kristine: Okay. Then I guess my real question is why do you think The Game succeeds as a horror movie and Se7en doesn’t?

Sean:  It sounds like you have a theory?

Kristine: No.

Sean: I can try to make a case for why The Game is great and actually scary, where Se7en is just dumb.

Kristine: Okay, I would like you to make a case for The Game. But first I have to say that I do think Michael Douglas is perfectly cast in it. He does a good job. Thankfully, since he is onscreen 99.99% of the time. Michael Douglas is a real situation, but he works in this. It was smart of Fincher not to try and play him “against type,” but instead to roll with the trademark rich prick thing Douglas does so well.

Bring Me the Head of Queen Diva Realness

Sean: Well, my biggest piece of evidence in my case for the movie is Michael Douglas. I love him in this. He is total bitchy diva realness all the way. I actually have always loved Michael Douglas.

Kristine: Wow, really?

Sean: Yes. I am shocked you called him “a situation.”

Kristine: Wow. Okay, I have reasons for my opinion.

Sean: I consider him a national treasure. War of the Roses. Romancing the Stone. Basic Instinct. Fatal Attraction.

Kristine: I agree that he is great in War of the Roses, Romancing the Stone, and Fatal Attraction. He is ridiculous in Basic Instinct… And that leads us to one of my beefs with him. My boyfriend and I were discussing how Hollywood decided that Michael Douglas should be a leading man, but that it’s a bad idea and a bad fit. He is not handsome and he has too much edge. He is great in roles that let him be a freak. And I am mad at him for the whole Catherine Zeta-Jones cunnilingus thing.

Sean: Also he’s wonderful in Wonder Boys.

Kristine:  He is great in Wonder Boys. Now that he is an oldie and won’t be cast as a romantic lead, I have high hopes for him.

Sean: He is absolutely an old-school Hollywood leading man in my eyes. Look at all the classic leading men: Humphrey Bogart? Jimmy Stewart? Spencer Tracy? They’d be considered homely character actors today.

Kristine: I don’t buy Michael Douglas as a leading man. Sorry.

Sean: You just agreed with me that he is wonderful in four leading roles. I’m confused.

Kristine: I should clarify. He can definitely carry a movie. I don’t think he can pull off a traditional romantic leading man, unless it has a quirky edge like in Romancing the Stone or War of the Roses. That is what I mean.

Sean: Oh, I can absolutely cosign that. Like, he’d be terrible as Jerry McGuire. I haven’t watched Behind the Candelabra yet. It’s like a present I’m waiting to open until just the right moment.

Phallic power

Kristine:  I am excited to see that, too. But what about him saying that Catherine Zeta-Jones’ vagina gave him cancer???

Sean: Whatever. So many actors I love have said the stupidest shit.

Kristine: Like who?

Sean: When Jeremy Irons was like, ‘If we legalize gay marriage, then I guess I should just go ahead and marry my son.’ Remember that?

Kristine: Yes, I do.

Sean: We too easily forget that most actors are windbag know-nothings in real life.

Kristine: Fine, fine.

Sean: Michael Douglas excels at being a fucking prick, but still allowing you root for him. This was established most efficiently in Wall Street, which is the previous role that I think The Game most cashes in on and references. And Nicholas Van Orton in The Game is exactly the sort of character that, on paper, seems like he would be impossible to root for. But you put Douglas in the role and let him strut around rolling his eyes and sighing impatiently and being like, “Not this suit!” and it is glorious. He is a full-on bitchy queen in The Game and I live for it. Plus, I love Deborah Kara Unger tons and tons. She was amazing in Cronenberg’s Crash. I think she’s wonderful. So just watching the two of them together in this is highly enjoyable for me. Michael Douglas is great because he’s so distinguished and full of himself, but he always plays roles that undercut that quality and make him look ridiculous and I dig that in an actor. I find him to be extremely loveable.

Kristine: I agree that Michael Douglas goes there and it is wonderful.

Sean: And I like how the movie is this spin on A Christmas Carol, but with an overly-tanned cunty diva in the Scrooge role.

Kristine: Agreed. That could have been twee, but it worked.


Sean: And I really like how one of the basic premises of the movie is that the Straight White Men that rule the world are actually quite unbalanced, fragile and about to collapse into a puddle of tears.

Kristine: Let’s hope so, it gives me reason to carry on another day.

Sean: But as much as I love this movie, I actually have several ideological bones to pick with it.

Kristine: Well, before we get into that… As successful as Michael Douglas is in this role, I thought Sean Penn was a big whatever. They could have saved some bucks and hired any-old-body.

Sean: I actually like Sean Penn as the ex-druggie black sheep. Jodie Foster was supposed to play that role, but had to back out.

Kristine: Really? No way. You lie.

Sean: Oh yeah totally.

Kristine: I thought Penn was meh and that’s being generous. And I loathed his ‘90s hair with the center part and his wide-collared shirts. Speaking of horrible clothes: Christine’s first outfit? The short flouncy skirt with thigh-high tights and combat boots? N-N-N-Nineties independent woman realness! On par with Jill from Hardware.

Sean: I think the most straightforward and pleasure-centric way to enjoy this movie is as a manifesto about and love-letter (with a poisoned pen) to gaming culture.

Kristine: Oh, wow, I didn’t think about it that way at all, as a comment on gaming culture. I am intrigued. But it needs to be said I have never played video games and know very little about them. Please enlighten me.

Van Orton comforts himself with crumpled pages torn out of People magazine

Sean: Well, the biggest delight of the movie for me is just thinking about how amazingly fun it would be to play The Game. Like, being thrust into your very own film noir?

Kristine: I knew you would totally want to play The Game. Not me.

Sean: I love how once Van Orton gets the key, all of a sudden he sees the entire world around him differently. He starts to notice all the service workers in the airport using keys and just starts thinking about keys differently. They’re no longer just keys – they’re items in The Game.

Kristine: Sorry to be dense, but explain. Like what is a parallel? Is there some video game you have played that changed how you saw the world?

Sean: First off, not just video games, but also role-playing games and general feats of imagination. But this is hard to explain if you’ve never spent a lot of time playing those kinds of games… It’s just about… about turning the landscape of the world into a gigantic puzzle and thus turning all these mundane objects into parts of the puzzle. That’s how you see the world of a game when you’re playing it. The novel Ready Player One is really great at talking about and dramatizing all of this. But there’s a big element of wish fulfillment. Like, ‘What if there was a design’?

Kristine: I can see that. But I guess my question is: If you spend a lot of time gaming, do you start to view the world that way? As a gigantic puzzle?

Sean: I mean, that’s an overly simplistic way of framing it, but… sure. To an extent.

Kristine: Should I be offended???? I was trying to use your example.

Sean:  No, don’t be offended. I didn’t mean to sound dismissive or rude, sorry. It’s just complicated and ontological. I do think that the movie honors the thrill of gaming and tries to capture the spirit of gaming. I mean, remember when all of sudden Van Orton sees all the people that populate the environments around him as possibly being in on The Game? And he wonders if they’re real, or if they’re playing parts? Which leads to that hilarious – and hilariously hyperreal – moment when the guy in the airport bathroom who has run out of toilet paper begs Van Orton to help him and Van Orton is so paranoid and freaked out that he leaves without helping. It’s like the regular world became a bunch of NPCs. There’s something comforting (and megalomaniacal) about that fantasy.

I waited tables for 9 years and I have done this

Kristine: I had to look up “NPC” and let me say that, to me, suddenly realizing that everyone around you is an NPC is not comforting. It is creepy and scary. And dehumanizing.

Sean: But it makes you the only person who “matters.” They’re just bit parts; you’re the star. They’re just NPCs, you’re the player.

Kristine: Like you said, megalomaniacal. I have only a handful of thoughts about gaming, but this is one of them: I think that people who don’t identify as gamers think the appeal is that ‘it isn’t real,’ that it’s this fantasy in which you can act in a fashion utterly different from real life. But I think that is wrong. I think people like it it because it is real, somehow. They get to use skills and behave in ways that they do embody, but do not get to use in real life. This goes for video games and LARPers and all the rest of it. I am probably not explaining this well.

Sean: This is getting into very postmodern, Baudrillardian territory, about the borders between the “real” and the simulacra. This movie takes place in a hyperreal space in which “what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.” Remember when the guy in the street has a ‘heart attack,’ and Van Orton asks Christine “How do we know if this is real?”  and she’s like, “He’s pissed in his pants, mister. Is that real enough for you?” And it turns out, it was all a part of the simulation. It has become virtually impossible to discern the real from the simulated. They’ve been “seamlessly blended.”

Kristine: Perfect description. It’s like, is that picture in the frame really Christine at her Communion? Or is it just a picture cut out of a magazine? Plus, before his encounter with CRS, Van Orton does treat everyone like they’re just NPCs, right? Then he enters the game, where people really do exist just for his “profound life experience,” and that’s how he learns to be a human.

Sean: Well…. I think it’s debatable that he really learns anything at all, which is one of the bones I have to pick with the movie.

Kristine: One thing I liked about the characterization of Van Orton was how he was this master of the universe, but the movie is careful to point out how he is reliant on “the little people” and is helpless without them (which is an age-old truth about the megawealthy that Fincher is reminding us of). There are tons of examples – like the sad birthday meal that Ilsa prepares for him – but I thought it was most striking when he asks Christine for an aspirin (mind you, this is after he already knows she is involved with CRS, and I think he’s already said that he is going to criminally prosecute her and force her to testify, putting her in danger). So despite the fact that he might view her as an adversary, he still asks her for comfort, and then is shocked and feels betrayed when he realizes she has drugged him. He has grown up in a world where people seem to exist merely to aid and fulfill his needs, and he can’t make the adjustment to a universe in which people are out for themselves.

The cabal hides in the boy’s showers…

Sean: Yes yes yes. This leads me to one of my big questions, which is: What is this movie trying to say about wealth and social class? Remember how he fires Anson Baer? And is so rude to him?

Kristine: Ha ha, yes.

Sean: Then at the end of the movie, after Van Orton has leapt from the roof into his birthday party, he sees Baer again and starts to apologize for firing him and Baer is like, “You have nothing to apologize for. I’ve never been happier.”

Kristine: Ugh, I hated that.

Sean: I was like, ‘Oh, so the movie’s just saying that business is business.’ I’ve spent the last three days trying to figure out Fincher’s overall attitude towards the 1%-ers. I’ve been thinking about all his movies: The Social Network, Panic Room, etc. I’m wondering if his entire filmography is just about celebrating the megawealthy and that, ultimately, he is on the side of the 1%.

Kristine: Do you really think that?

Sean: I think this movie’s “critique” of wealth is actually not a critique at all. By the end of the movie, aren’t we’re on the side of the megarich? Hasn’t Van Orton learned and lost nothing?

Kristine: Interesting. Okay, let me respond.

Sean: One last point.

Kristine: Okay.

Sean: When the game actually begins, Van Orton is watching the news and the tv anchor says, “The one thing on which Republicans and Democrats seem to agree is that most Americans harbor serious doubts about the economic future. A recent poll suggests a staggering 57% of American workers believe there is a very real chance they will be unemployed within the next 5-to-7 years.” So, the movie is situating its story within a specific kind of cultural context, and I actually thought it was really interesting to watch and think about this movie from a post-Recession, post-Occupy Wall Street moment. Then the anchor directly addresses Van Orton and asks him, “But what does that matter to a bloated millionaire fatcat like you?” It seems, at that moment, like the movie is going to make a point about class in America. But at the end of the movie, the wealthy keep on wealth-ing it up, Van Orton goes contentedly back to all his riches, the people he’s fired tell him not to worry about it, and he gets the girl. Ew.

Clowns are horrible

Kristine: I agree with you 100 % about the ending. Van Orton doesn’t lose shit. In fact, he gains a lot. His fractured relationships with his ex-wife and brother are magically healed. He comes to terms with his grief over his father’s suicide. He gets the girl. He earns the respect and friendship of people he has wronged. But I don’t see that as a celebration of the 1%-ers, though. Maybe it’s actually a very, very cynical statement by Fincher. Maybe his worldview is that there really is a “Game,” and it is all about the privileged acquiring more and more wealth. It’s about regular people sacrificing so that the rich can not only get richer, but feel good about it and have satisfying personal lives. Maybe CRS exists so that men like Van Orton don’t suddenly realize their lives are crap and off themselves like his dad. The System doesn’t want the elite men (and, of course, women – though this movie isn’t capable of imagining women with access to Van Orton’s kind of power) at the top of the pyramid to suddenly realize that they’re monsters and go join an ashram somewhere and give up on capitalism. Sean, I have just now realized that this is my theory about the subtext of The Game. CRS is just a metaphor for the real systems of power in the world that maintain the status quo so that The Masters of the Universe won’t question themselves or their actions, so that the wheels of capitalism and privilege can keep on turning. CRS is there in order to supply “meaning” to the lives of the überwealthy, who have acquired so much insulating wealth and power that they’re far more likely than anyone else to suddenly come face-to-face with the existential Void. CRS is there to make sure the Van Ortons of the world don’t suddenly start thinking about things and questioning the System. CRS doesn’t want the Captains of Industry to end up like Van Orton’s father, who clearly had doubts. Remember when Van Orton asks Ilsa, his nanny and housekeeper, about what his father was like, and all she has to say is that, “he worked very hard.  What I remember most was his manner was so… slight. It was easy to spend time in a room, and not realize he’d been there the whole time.” The System doesn’t want their Captains of Industry to embody that kind of slightness, that lack of presence. And Van Orton doesn’t. When he walks into a room, he fills it with his presence. He struts and preens. Remember how Christine keeps being like, “What are you, a czar or something?” By the end of the movie, CRS has ensured that he’ll continue to do that, to be czar-like. And remember how the other fatcats who’ve done the whole CRS thing up-sell it to Van Orton and one of them frames the experience as practically Biblical, saying, “You wanna know what it is? What it’s all about? John Chapter 9 Verse 25: ‘Whereas once I was blind, now I can see.’”

Sean: Right, right. You’re very persuasive. But at the same time, Fincher is not a director who in interested in telling stories about “ordinary” people – only the incredibly wealthy and privileged. Jodie Foster’s swank Gothic mansion in Panic Room, the almost antebellum decadence on display in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (complete with Mammy character to profess her undying loyalty to the well-being of her wealthy and white and male charge). I think that undercuts any critique that The Game or any of his other movies might make about the System. That might not be fair, but its how I feel.

Kristine: Hmm…

He mistakes his gun for a Botox needle

Sean: Plus, it seems like the movie really believes in the connection between the plebeians and the Van Ortons of the world. That the Van Ortons play this vital role, and the welfare of the 99% is all tied up with the 1% keeping their fortunes and their grip on all the power. Remember when Van Orton is freaking out at the end and he is like, “This is more than just me. This is pension plans. Payroll. This is six million dollars!” I honestly think the movie is endorsing that connection – that the system relies on men like Van Orton, so don’t be fucking with that shit if you want people to get their paychecks and their retirement funds. With that having been said, I still loved watching Michael Douglas act like Mariah Carey for over two hours.

Kristine: I kind of disagree with your indictment of Fincher.

Sean: Tell me.

Kristine: Well, I am not familiar with his entire oeuvre, but I don’t think all of his movies are about the rich and powerful, are they? House of Cards, The Game, The Social Network – yes. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – sort of. It’s about the rich and powerful, but not told from their POV. I didn’t see Panic Room or Benji’s Buttons, so I can’t speak to those. Fight Club and Se7en are about trying to feel powerful when you’re actually not, right? The thing that stands out to me about his filmography – and this goes back to your point about gaming culture – is that in many of them there is a motif, a pattern, an algorithm that needs to be solved/cracked for the protagonist to “win.” Hacking is the key to the plot in Dragon Tattoo, it’s literally an algorithm that gets things popping in The Social Network, the detectives are dedicated to figuring out the killer’s pattern in Se7en. Fincher seems to be interested in the idea that there is something bigger than us that keeps the wheels of society turning, but he seems most fascinated by those characters who figure out the “pattern” and wrest control of it for themselves. In Fincher’s movies, that’s what it means to “win.”

Sean: Yes, I can see that. Lisbeth Salander in Dragon Tattoo is this outsider who “cracks the code.” So is Fincher’s Zuckerberg in Social Network. In both of Fincher’s serial killer movies – Se7en and Zodiac – the horror and uncanny power of the villain stems from their ability to operate by a code that the detective figures cannot crack (either at all or in time).  Meg Altman, Jodie Foster’s character in Panic Room, must improvise a response to an elaborate heist, to scramble the plan of the criminals and subvert it in order to protect herself and her daughter (and, might I add, her fortune). The narrative in Fight Club relies upon this elaborate countercultural conspiracy.

Kristine: I think there is truth to what you say and I think that my two theories contradict each other a bit. On the one hand, I think Fincher believes that what counts in the world is power, and that the world is set up to reward and reinforce the powerful, often through victimizing/sacrificing the plebes. On the other hand, I think he holds a fairly optimistic view that it’s possible for a regular person to “crack the code” and figure out how to “win.” If that’s not optimistic, at least it’s a meritocracy, right? Maybe the two ideas don’t contradict one another, but they don’t totally fall in line with one another. Though both are fairly soulless, both place the importance on winning and succeeding and being better than others. Neither is concerned with human relationships and their value. I feel like Fincher tries to address alienation in his movies (Social Network, Dragon Tattoo), but it never really comes across as that convincing to me.

Good advice for a Queen

Sean: Yes. That’s why I’m still clinging to my dislike for Fincher’s take on money and class. He’s still the ultimate capitalist. In his movies, it’s not about dismantling or critiquing the system. It’s about subverting the system only insofar as you figure out a way to become a winner. But you keep the game going. Salander and Zuckerberg and Van Orton and Meg Altman all profit from the system continuing as it is. The only thing that matters is that they become wealthy and become key players in the system. I find it really fascinating that Fincher has become this Golden Boy of American cinema, who is cultishly worshipped by fanboys, film snobs and regular folks alike. Similar to how Christopher Nolan – who trucks in slick, paternalistic fascism – is worshipped, along with other male “auteurs”/Young Turks like Darren Aronofsky and Paul Thomas Anderson. All of these filmmakers compose, from my point of view, love letters to the system, and love letters to male power, though Aronofsky is a bit more interested in the abject, broken pieces of the system. Ultimately, The Game is only about solidifying Van Orton in his power, whereas A Christmas Carol is about reforming Scrooge to be more compassionate to those lesser than him. I do agree with you that Fincher is cynical, almost nihilistic. I just don’t admire him for it.

Kristine: Yes to all that. Yes yes yes.

Sean: The ennui of the 1%-ers, which drove Van Orton’s father to suicide, is a big part of this, somehow. The whole point of CRS’s game is to get Van Orton to jump and reenact his father’s suicide. Why?

Kristine: Oh, no, I disagree. Remember what I said earlier? I think CRS is stepping in with The Game to make sure Van Orton doesn’t reenact his father’s suicide. By making him feel justified in his actions, and by making him feel alive. They need to keep Van Orton going as a Master of the Universe to keep the system working. I think “the wizard behind the curtain” has been watching Van Orton for his whole life, and they sense his ennui. They step in with The Game to make sure he doesn’t become like his dad. Remember at the beginning when Van Orton declines all the invitations to different social events and when his secretary disapproves, he says, “You don’t know about society, Marie. You don’t have the satisfaction of avoiding it.” He’s all ready starting to reject the world he was born into, to lose faith in it. That’s why CRS must step in. That is my take.

Sean: Right. Remember when he abducts Feingold at gunpoint, he says, “I don’t want money. I’m pulling back the curtain. I’m here to meet the wizard.”

Kristine: And remember that Conrad’s cool nihilism is part of what gets Van Orton interested in CRS in the first place. Like how Conrad lights a cigarette in the restaurant and is like, “Fuck California!” That kind of anti-social, anti-authority stance is appealing to Van Orton, which is proof that he ‘needs’ CRS to step in and remind him why the rules are important, why they’re in place.

Sean: So his father’s actual act of despair becomes a ceremonial – and purely symbolic – gesture. His self-annihilation, which was itself a scream of discontent against the System, gets defanged and neutered by becoming an empty gesture that only reinforces the system that killed him….

Kristine: Word.

Sean: The thing that’s at odds, for me, in my enjoyment of this movie is that on the one hand I’m grossed out by the movie’s class politics, but on the other hand I am obsessed with Van Orton’s diva antics. Remember when Christine is like, “The cleaning bill will be more than your suit” and Van Orton is like, “Um… not likely!” I loved it.

Conrad breaks the news that everyone thinks Nicholas is obese by presenting him with an XXXL novelty tee

Kristine: I loved that, too. Michael Douglas at his bitchy best.

Sean: Also loved that the sale tag on Christine’s lamp is the thing that alerts him to the fact that she works for CRS.

Kristine: My boyfriend and I laughed about that one.

Sean: To a fat cat like Van Orton, a sale tag is like the most uncanny thing ever.

Kristine: Right.

Sean: I love that scene where he figures out her whole apartment is just stage dressing. That’s a beautifully hyperreal moment. And I’d also like to point out that there is a dash of subversiveness (or, to use a phrase, “queerness”) to Van Orton at the beginning of the film. Like how he sneers that one of the questions on the CRS psych exam is “I feel guilty when I masturbate.” But especially in his rejection of the traditional narratives, like how he sneers at his ex-wife’s conventional choices and is like, “Official nuclear family. You must be very pleased.” He’s not all that heteronormative in the beginning – something the movie goes out of its way to rectify both by reaffirming heterosexual unions as the ultimate (when he tells his ex-wife, “You’re the only person I can trust”) and also by pairing him romantically with Christine at the end of the movie and, thus, putting him on the path towards his ex-wife’s brand of heteronormativity. This is one of the those moments when women are used as metaphors for conservative values: the mother, the womb. It all goes back to the words flashing across the screen during his CRS testing. “Masculinity, Submission, Orgasm, Death, Fornication, Commitment.” Notice the mini-narrative spelled out there and, most importantly, how it ends. With commitment.

Kristine: Oh sure. And I think there’s maybe a slightly subversive idea in the movie that capitalism, ultimately, doesn’t care about social or cultural issues like sexuality. Remember when he accuses Baer of setting him up and he screams, “You can have pictures of me wearing nipple rings, butt-fucking Captain Kangaroo. The only thing they care about is the stock and whether that stock is up or down!” It’s like, in a truly secular, capitalist society, queerness is beside the point. It’s about money. That’s freeing, no?

Sean: I want to make some point or connection to how gay male culture has long been associated with capital and purchasing power and the celebration of wealth and excess, but I’m afraid it will come out sounding homophobic. But someone smarter and more articulate than myself would make some really fascinating point about that connection right now.

The plight of the driven

Kristine: If this movie is not an indictment against the 1% and the system, then it is pretty fucking disgusting – that all these people just exist to prop up Van Orton because he makes the wheels of capitalism turn. Vomit.

Sean: Right? Remember when Christine tells him that someone paid her to spill drinks on him and she says that they identified him to her as “the guy in the grey flannel suit”? The actual novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is about “the American search for purpose in the world of business” (according to Wikipedia). This movie is very… Don Draper, in a way.

Kristine: I barfed when she added, “the attractive man in the gray flannel suit.” Yeah, it’s significant she didn’t say “a” gray flannel suit. It is total Don Draper to the max.

Sean: I am amending my Fincher complaint. Isn’t Van Orton a total prototype for Fincher’s take on Zuckerberg?

Kristine: You mean socially inept and clueless?

Sean: Sort of.

Kristine: I think it’s significant that Van Orton comes from the system. He is already part of it, which is why they can’t risk losing him. And he grew up powerful but soulless, so his ennui is going to cause him to seek out human relationships and truths, so CRS steps in to fill those desires by giving him his brother and his ex and a new foxy lady and making him feel justified in all his terrible behavior. Whereas in The Social Network, Zuckerberg is learning how to become a master of the universe. I see Zuckerberg as being closer to Van Orton’s father. He still has some awareness that the life he has built is full of artifice.

Sean: Yes. But Van Orton and Zuckerberg both share the same simmering low-level resentment/anger towards others.

Kristine: Yes, for sure. I’d call it contempt.

Sean: One of my favorite little moments in the movie is when he’s gone to the hotel room where they’ve set up this big cocaine-‘n-hookers scandal for him to get embroiled in and he cuts himself on the cocaine-mirror. Remember how he tries to flush the blood-soaked toilet paper he’s used to try to stop the bleeding, but the toilet is backed up and starts to overflow with blood-red water? I love that moment and that image. I’d connect it back to that moment in the airport bathroom when he refuses to help the man whose run out of toilet paper. I’d add that I see a bit of queer subtext to both those scenes.

This is CINEMA

Kristine: Right, right.

Sean: But one of the most iconic moments in The Game, for me, is Van Orton in the subliminal video room, staring into the glaring light coming from the projection booth and asking “Does this thing end?” and receiving no answer. I thought that moment was one of the most meta moments in the film. It was about Cinema.

Kristine: I loved his reaction during all the tests. Especially the Rorschach test: “Whoops.” “Risky.” I think his willingness to suffer fools and undergo all those insane and invasive tests supports my theory that pre-CRS, he is very close to having a father-like meltdown about the meaninglessness of it all. He is desperate for meaning, or else why would he possibly subject himself to all that?

Sean:  Yep. Confused/risky/bloody/whoops. Poetry that describes his state of being. I actually think this is Douglas’s greatest screen performance, no lie. He is so good and never looks like he’s trying. But do you agree that the Clockwork Orange room is a meta-moment about the relationship between audiences and filmmakers?

Kristine: I do agree. When he asks, “Does this ever end?” he seems to be asking a bigger question. If there is a “director” who controls us and we are just characters in a narrative…

Sean: Masculinity, Submission, Orgasm, Death, Fornication, Commitment. I’ve been thinking about the recession a lot in connection with The Game and how Van Orton’s game is an example of the megawealthy treating hardship and struggle as a novel experience to be purchased.


Kristine: Ah, yes.

Sean: Like, the things Van Orton undergoes – running from the police, not having money, having to beg a ride – are all things that “reg’lar people” have to go through all the time. Or, more specifically, the underclass. The poor. I was struck by how he found it all to be this amazing thrillride, but to a lot of Americans, it’s the nightmare of their daily existence. Like how running from the guard dogs just boils down to “There goes my $1000 shoe!” for Van Orton. Remember when Connie presents him with the certificate from CRS at the beginning, he poses the question, “What do you get for the man who has everything?” The answer is: the novelty of pretending to be poor and disenfranchised. That is, as Conrad puts it, a “a profound life experience.” Feingold describes it as “a great vacation, except you don’t go to it. It comes to you.”

X marks the clot

Kristine: Right. The “experiential book-of-the-month club.” And when Van Orton dismisses CRS as “one of those personal improvement cults or something,” he actually was completely accurate. That is what CRS is, but just not the way he thought. Though instead of Van Orton being “improved” in the sense that he learns how the other 99% live, CRS basically lets him believe that those experiences aren’t real, right? Because Van Orton can brush them all off as fictions, all part of the narrative trickery. He can’t believe that anyone actually lives that way. And thus, his faith in the system – and his right to his throne of power – is reified and he is, thus, ‘improved.’

Sean: Right. Clubs clubs clubs cults cults cults. Belonging belonging belonging.

Kristine: He doesn’t have to feel guilty for belonging anymore.

Sean: Yeah, and having power means that those hardships can just be simulations. Experiential narratives. Vicarious pleasure. We are all NPCS, the rich people are the playahs. This is something hip-hop has been talking about for the past 30 years.

Kristine: Once again, once again.

Sean: Laugh line: When Van Orton describes his ex-wife’s new husband as “a pediatrician, or a gynecologist, or a pediatric gynecologist.”

Kristine: Hee hee. He is a horrible person, but super-hilarious. Like, I would totally invite him to my dinner party and let him say horrible things all night.

Sean: Me too.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Provocative and problematic AND This film IS America AND A worthy film, but won’t keep me up at night

The Freak’s Rating: Neo-Hitchcockian gorgeousness AND Poses great questions, fumbles the answers AND Postmodern as hell AND Problematic, but fun as hell

Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 2.28.45 PM

9 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: David Fincher’s The Game (1997)

  1. “CRS is there in order to supply “meaning” to the lives of the überwealthy, who have acquired so much insulating wealth and power that they’re far more likely than anyone else to suddenly come face-to-face with the existential Void. CRS is there to make sure the Van Ortons of the world don’t suddenly start thinking about things and questioning the System. CRS doesn’t want the Captains of Industry to end up like Van Orton’s father, who clearly had doubts.”

    See Douglas Adams’ H2G2 prostitute whose service to the wealthy is to tell them it’s OK to be rich.

  2. I guess this and ‘Panic Room’ are considered lesser Fincher? I really enjoyed both, and was surprised at the generally negative critical reception both received.
    I love ‘Se7en’. And ‘Fight Club’;)

  3. I love this movie and Panic Room and Zodiac more than any of his other movies… Though I agree with you that Fight Club is great. Cannot share the love for Se7en….

  4. I mean, I don’t WANT to, but for you and horror movie club…I suppose I could be talked into it. Worst case scenario, I’ll end up more articulate about WHY I dislike it.

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