Sunday, October 7, 2012

Playing The Game

By Steve Evans

“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.” – German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

I re-watched David Fincher's The Game (1997) last night. The picture is not as clever as its creators think it is, but remains thought-provoking. And that's rare for a big-budget film starring Michael Douglas. 

In retrospect, casting Douglas was an ideal choice. The man has an uncanny way of tapping into and exploiting social issues with precision timing: 

In 1979, he co-starred in The China Syndrome, about an accident at a nuclear reactor. The film's premiere coincided within weeks of an actual accident at the nuclear plant in Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island.

A decade later, as public sentiment began to turn against the money-obsessed, Douglas won an Oscar for Wall Street in which he famously declared that "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good," creating in Gordon Gekko a villain for the times, if not the ages, as he would return two decades later as the same character played on a more sympathetic note (the poorly titled Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps).

Around the same time, Douglas starred as a walking metaphor for the dangers of marital infidelity and, perhaps as subtext, the very real risk of contracting a terminal disease, in the wildly successful Fatal Attraction.

Eight years later, Douglas was an improbable victim of sexual harassment in the workplace in Disclosure.

And he was right for The Game as a millionaire investment banker who gets a strange birthday present from his brother (Sean Penn). It is a voucher from a sketchy company known as Consumer Recreation Services to play a mysterious game that the brother assures "will change your life." Soon, the wealthy man wonders whether the Game is designed to kill him, instead. 

The Game is that rare thriller that stretches credibility to the outer reaches of the breaking point, yet holds together in its enduring theme: the importance of living the examined life. It is a fascinating metaphor for breaking down a man to his raw components -- as life will do -- and waiting to see if the man can rebuild himself into something better. 

Fincher's third directorial effort is also a uniquely American film that taps into the cultural obsession with fame and wealth, while privately enjoying the fall of the famous and wealthy. The Game panders to this perverse Schadenfreude as viewers envy the protagonist's comfortable life, then gloat when complacency and riches are forcibly taken from him. Yet by the end of the film, Douglas' unpleasant millionaire regains his humanity after he is force-fed a rather large serving of humility by Consumer Recreation Services, a corporation that seems to take malicious glee in playing God. Viewers may feel sorry for Douglas’ persecuted character, even come to like this man.

The Game understands and exploits American culture like few modern films. Its story arc follows a typical celebrity confessional on an episode of Oprah: An arrogant and self-obsessed individual comes tumbling down from grace, makes penance (in The Game, it is a proverbial trial by fire) and seeks absolution. Everyone has a good cry and walks into the light. Salvation at last.

At its core, The Game can be seen as a Christian allegory of redemption – if we can get past the outrageous plot and treat the film as character study. It is ultimately the millionaire’s personal mettle that is put to the test; the rest is slicked-up action entertainment by cinematic craftsmen at the top of their own game.

Though many critics have commented on the mean-spirited nature of The Game, it actually remains Fincher’s most humane and hopeful film. And that, like the cultural zeitgeist flowing below the surface of The Game itself, is a curious paradox not found in any other contemporary film.

Note: The always-excellent Criterion Collection recently released a special edition of this film.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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