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The Game: Let’s play it again

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If we are going to reconsider Seven, why not director David Fincher’s follow-up The Game? Fincher is one of my favorite directors working today, his works having a unique visual style and dark, underlying themes. He’s one of the few modern directors whose films I will see simply because he’s attached to them. Fight Club is brilliant, and I think will eventually be considered his masterpiece. The Panic Room was a step back, but still fascinating. But for some reason, I love The Game.

When watching this 1997 film for the first time, one will be pleasantly surprised by the continuous twist and turns literally leaving the viewer on the edge of their seat. It’s almost impossible to predict the outcome of this mystery/thriller, all the more so because of Fincher’s penchant for draping The Game with ominous shadows and uncomfortable flashbacks dealing with alienation and suicide. The Game, like most of Fincher’s films, does not feel like it’s headed anywhere near a comfortable resolution. And if one recalls the thoroughly depressing Seven, you know he is a director uninhibited when it comes to detailing the demons of the psyche.

In The Game, rarely has the San Francisco locale seemed so dark and dreary. The rain-soaked streets, abandoned skyscrapers and lonely mansions are displayed in an almost Gothic fashion, reminding one of the lonely fog-shrouded sets of early Hammer horror films. Drop into this desolate atmosphere the secluded protagonist played by Michael Douglas, and viewers find themselves in a most uncomfortable motion picture. The tension rarely lets up, as Sean Penn, who plays Douglas’ kid brother, appears on the scene to offer a birthday present to his brother — a game that will have a profound affect on his life.

Douglas, out of boredom more than anything else, eventually visits the company which offers “The Game.” He soon discovers the padded existence he has forged has been violated with eerie mannequin clowns appearing in his driveway and television sets talking to him rather than reporting stocks. Soon, nothing is what it seems, not even his relationship with his brother. Douglas finds himself hunted by mysterious men and answering phone calls that play back previous conversations.

Throw into this tumultuous mix a wise-cracking waitress (played with silky ease by Deborah Unger) who becomes Douglas’ ally, and the viewer is in for a Halloween-like roller coaster ride complete with runaway taxi cabs, blazing machine guns and chases through alley ways. All of this frantic activity eventually leads to the top of a downtown office building, where Douglas is confronted with a desperate choice — either accept “The Game” as just that, or realize his life is truly in danger. His decision may not surprise the viewer, but the resolution absolutely will.

I’m not sure why I enjoy The Game so much, having seen it multiple times. Douglas’ performance is fine, if a bit derivative of his past work. The immensely talented Penn seems to enjoy himself in what is essentially a thankless cameo role. Unger, who steals many of her scenes, is appealing though nothing to write home about.

Perhaps what sets The Game apart is its atmosphere, undoubtedly fueled by Fincher. This is a director’s film if ever there was one, complete with frantic pace, symbolic flashbacks, strategic camera angles and already-mentioned dark vision. While the over-the-top intensity of Fincher’s better known efforts Seven and Fight Club is definitely in full bloom, he does hold back just enough of those mischievous demons to make The Game his most mature and accessible effort. Thus, it is one of the finest works by one of the most interesting directors working today.

Fincher is one of the few successful film makers whose skills were honed making MTV videos. He cut his teeth on Madonna extravaganzas, but has since revealed a true talent with five fascinating films. With The Game, he detailed a man trapped within an alienated corporate culture and cocooned by a painful, dysfunctional past. Douglas’ character is a walking dead man whose spirit must die before embracing life once again.

The Game is a superb film, quietly filled with a guarded hope not seen in Fincher’s previous works. It’s as if he washed away the demons of Seven, deciding to mold a great filmmaking career. I, for one, am looking forward to Fincher’s next motion picture.

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