A masterful thriller in the finest tradition that would have made a man like Hitchcock proud. For the rest of us, the reaction to this terrific piece of work should be nothing less than impressed.
Michael Douglas has seldom been better in a role tailor made for his talents, playing an emotionally stunted millionaire, far removed from the people around him and distant to the point of total social disconnection. His brother (Sean Penn) gives him an unusual birthday gift; a game that is supposed to make his life more `fun' but eventually turns into a waking nightmare. The ingenious screenplay engineers its twists with such breathless intelligence and wit that upon the first viewing it plays as a thriller. The next time around the film reveals itself as a character study of the most gripping kind.
Douglas' performance is remarkable and arguably his finest. His whole job in this movie is to make the transition from uptight and repressed investment banker to an unhinged and suicidal shell of a man, palpable. In the beginning he is almost too distant to be really empathetic, his steely demeanour giving us nothing to really like about the man. Plus he's rich, and who likes to feel sorry for a millionaire? His performance bridges the implausibility of plot logic so that his final 'test' at the climax comes from an emotionally honest place and has considerable impact (no pun intended) and resonance. The support given to him is also incredibly strong, having an on-form Sean Penn in his corner, ably backed by the alluring Deborah Kara Unger and a fantastic James Rebhorn.
David Fincher has been lauded over the years for his work on "Seven," and "Fight Club," yet this is by far his most elegant piece of work. The classy direction captures the isolation of a man lost in the maze of a psychologically torturous game, and never falters once in its pace and stylistic integrity. The film is beautiful to watch from sorrowful beginning right through to the moving end. How many thrillers do you know that can hold you in suspense and deliver an affecting emotional punch without trading up on either? Make no mistake, "The Game," is not simply visually exquisite and dramatically powerful, it also contains some of the more alarming and unexpected set-pieces you are likely to see in what essentially boils down to a thoughtful character piece.
However, don't let my superlatives put you off the idea of seeing or buying this movie. It delivers on its promise of surprises and twists, still in keeping with its themes while the end game is delivered with sound judgement. Howard Shore's haunting score adds the extra layers of depth and nuance to the story, highlighting the background and subtext with a captivatingly atmospheric piano solo in all the right places. Mood, atmosphere, tension, this under appreciated classic has the lot. If you stay with the plot and Douglas' protagonist, and suspend your disbelief to a certain degree, you may even find the ending quite moving if you appreciate the emotional complexity of the main character and Douglas' amazing performance of him.
In my opinion this is Fincher's finest work to date. A perfect puzzle box thriller on the first viewing and a deeply intelligent character study on repeat experiences. Do yourself a favour, if you haven't seen this film yet, set a night aside sometime soon and get into the game. It's a true classic that never gets old.