" I always wanted to be a criminal I guess. Not this big a one. "
— Martin Sheen, Badlands

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery


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The Game is an exciting, tense mystery, but I suspect it won’t stand the test of time. Like The Crying Game, half the fun is seeing the movie before you know how it ends.

Millionaire investor Nicholas Van Orten (Michael Douglas) receives a birthday gift certificate from his uncultured brother Conrad (Sean Penn). The certificate is good for a Game at a company called CRS. Conrad will not explain the Game except to promise that it will change Nicholas’s life. Nicholas, who is too busy for such nonsense, tucks away the certificate and abruptly ends their lunch.

A few days later, Nicholas finds himself in the same building as CRS. Having heard some intriguing word of mouth about the Game, he stops in to ask a few questions.

The “few questions” turns into an application to play the Game, which drags on into hours and hours of psychological and physical testing (which Michael Douglas’ character would have walked out on, had not the plot required that he stay).

Once the Game has begun, Nicholas still doesn’t know what the game is, but he gets the idea one night when he goes home . . . .

Obviously mysterious things begin to happen to Nicholas, which he correctly identifies as being rigged by CRS. But fewer and fewer obvious mysteries occur as more and more coincidences and accidents (?) happen. Without knowing beforehand, it is impossible to be sure whether they are part of The Game, are coincidences, or are something else.

Congratulations should go to Fincher and screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris. Tension and suspense in movies are relatively easy to achieve, but inventing a satisfying ending is not. The Game avoids that pitfall. Without revealing the specifics of the ending, I can say only that it felt right. With 20/20 hindsight I can see that no other ending would have worked as well (especially in light of my theories set forth at the end of this review).

On top of a satisfying story line, the movie had lots else going for it. One thing is director David Fincher. Looking at his three big features (Alien3, Seven, and this one), it is apparent that Fincher has a great eye for how his films will look in the theater. He uses the blacks of night and shadow (and luxury cars) to great effect, merging the black on the screen with the darkness of the theater. One never knows when or where something may pop up from the black patches of the screen.

Also, the music was very good. It set the mood but it was not overbearing. At the end when Nicholas is embraced by the black bag, the music could have triumphantly swelled, which would have been utterly inappropriate. Instead, the music warmly welcomed Nicholas home, which was a more creative and appropriate tone. I find that lately, when I like the score to a movie, Howard Shore is inevitably the composer — as he is here. (His score for Cop Land was great and solemn, and the Crash soundtrack was so outstanding that I bought the CD).

Still, the movie is not perfect. When the paranoia and tension are working, The Game is a nail-biter. But that pace is hard to sustain for a long time and there are gaps where the action seems to stagnate. Also, there is a lot of visual complexity to The Game which almost calls for a second viewing. But because the movie is so gimmick-oriented, it doesn’t seem to welcome a repeat audience.

Finally, The Game is an interesting study because it works as a metaphor for moviegoing. Both Nicholas’ Game and our moviegoing seem strange at first. We have better things to do than to waste our time on some frivolous fantasy. Some good word of mouth usually has to draw us in.

When Nick applies for the Game, and we go to the moves, we are aware, for a time, that we are choosing to play along. For Nicholas, the can’t-miss-it clown in the driveway is a fascinating development, but it’s obviously part of the Game. For us, maybe we haven’t totally settled in yet. The popcorn isn’t finished or the latecomers are still walking down the aisles. We know we’re at the movies. But when Nick’s Game really gets interesting is when he’s not sure that it is a game. Likewise, a good movie can draw us in make us forget about or own “reality” for a while. If Nick’s Game had ended differently, the metaphor would be broken, but because it ended how it did, it makes a very nice metaphor for the moviegoing experience.

Taking the metaphor to another level, the party at the end of the movie was Oscar night; the employees of CRS were really the filmmakers in Hollywood, congratulating each other, comparing notes from the year, and partying big.

A good mystery movie is satisfying but it can never be great. That’s because nobody wants to see it a second time. Once you know how it ends, a second viewing just isn’t that interesting. That’s too bad in this case, because there’s a lot to be gleaned from this movie.