Movie Review: The Game

© 1997 Dan Heller

Quick Review: Go ahead: play the game. It's fun, suspenseful and you might learn something about yourself.

Synopsis: There are no rules in The Game, and that will make life very difficult for Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a shrewdly successful businessman who is always in control. Well-bred and well-schooled, Van Orton lives a well-ordered life. Until an unexpected birthday gift from his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) destroys it all.

Review: There's little mystery about what you know you're going to go through when you see this movie, but what makes it work so well is not just the twists and turns, but how Michael Douglas reacts to it all. Not only is the mystery compelling and the suspense thrilling, but the character development (and deterioration) is what makes it all work. The difficult part about making thriller and mystery movies is the risk of not surprising your audience. So, instead, don't try to hide the obvious, just make the characters believable and have the audience feel for them. And that's exactly what The Game does so well. The problems it has are irrelevant to the overall story or its more interesting characteristics, so I'll save those comments till the end.

Q. Do clowns make you uncomfortable?
Nicholas Van Orton has some deeply rooted personal issues about his father's death and his failing relationships that he has grown to live a paradoxical existence: he is content with his power and control over everything in his life and is financially successful. Yet, he is truly unhappy, because he's never come to terms with the torments he's kept buried deep within his soul. On his birthday, his brother Conrad (Sean Penn), gives him a present: the enrollment in an obscure game run by an elusive, unknown organization, where both the game and the organization are never really clear. Because his relationship with his brother has been off-and-on for so many years, and Conrad's been in and out of jail and drugs, Nicholas isn't sure how much to trust Conrad. That isn't perceived as a problem at first because "it's just a game", but when things go awry, it's not clear what kind of mess Conrad seems to have gotten Nicholas into. And neither do we, as the audience. It's never really clear whether this is a game, a scam, a mystery, or just every day reality finally catching up.

The best part of the movie is the slow deterioration of Nicholas' mind, until the end, when he finally goes "over the edge." You can feel for him the entire way down. Sure, he makes mistakes along the way, and one could argue that he should have known certain events or characters, but the notion that "it's just a game" keeps him from worrying too much about it. Till it's gone too far. It's clear part of what happens to him could be part of the game, but eventually, whether or not there is really a game becomes irrelevant. The ramifications of what does take place are so intense and sweeping, that it doesn't matter whether there's a game or not. Life matters, as do all the buried skeletons he's been harboring his whole life. It's not just survival he wants, but he feels remorse for bad things he's done, for relationships he's ruined, and for responsibilities for which he's failed to be accountable.

Even when it's all over, you it really over? Can he return to normal? No. Whatever it was that happened, he's changed. Unlike the movie, 12 Monkeys, The Game doesn't lie to you or trick you into thinking something that you couldn't have figured out.

What makes the movie so enjoyable is its authenticity, but herein also lies its problems: in order to confuse the characters (and the audience) about what's reality and what's not, very dangerous things must happen, and the sequence of events are critical. In fact, the dependency on the sequences is too demanding, for if Nicholas failed to notice little things, to remember slightest details, to go to certain places, to piece together very subtle bits of information, or even to perform subtle tasks, the whole thing wouldn't work. Obviously, this is what keeps us confused, since we're thinking the same thing, but it's the only thing that detracts from authenticity. This is the same problem I had with the movie, The Usual Suspects: Kevin Spacey's character put over a big one on us and we loved it, but after the movie was over, you think it was just a little too elaborate to work so elegantly. What would make this and similar movies just a notch better would be to introduce a crack -- a flaw -- somewhere in the big plan that might risk its failure. Now, we have some very intense moments. You might remember this being the case in The Sting with Robert Redford back in the 1970s.

No matter, The Game was quite enjoyable anyway, since for me, it's a minor point and the main quality is the character development.

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