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Film / The Game (1997)

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"What do you get for the man who has... everything?"

"I don't care about the money. I'm pulling back the curtain. I want to meet the wizard."
Nicholas van Orton

The Game is a 1997 mystery thriller film directed by David Fincher. It stars Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, with Deborah Kara Unger and James Rebhorn in supporting roles.

It centers around Nicholas van Orton (Douglas), an investment banker as wealthy as he is cold and self-centered. He spends his days isolated in his office, giving orders to employees. On his 48th birthday, Nicholas receives a unique present from his estranged brother Conrad (Penn): a voucher for a game, courtesy of a group called Consumer Recreation Services.

Though Nicholas is skeptical, not least because everyone he asks about the game describes it extremely vaguely, he eventually applies. Things soon get bizarre, and the line between the game and reality begins to blur. As Nicholas finds himself spiraling down a rabbit hole of ever-changing rules, he realizes that as the game progresses, his life as he knows it is in more and more danger...

This film runs on various twists and turns. You will learn them if you read any further. You Have Been Warned.

The Game contains examples of:

  • 555: The hotel where Nicholas allegedly hosted a Hookers and Blow party can be contacted under 555-1111.
  • Accidental Murder: On the rooftop, Nicholas mistakes Conrad for one of CRS's security guards and shoots him dead. Subverted by the later reveal that this was a Staged Shooting with blanks.
  • Age Cut: The opening Happier Home Movie cuts from a headshot of Nicholas as a child to a headshot of him splashing water onto his face in the current timeline when he is 48.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Nicholas certainly isn't by the time he finally gets out of Mexico; he openly begs for a ride back to San Francisco at a diner.
  • Alice Allusion: The movie prominently features the song "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane whose lyrics reference Alice in Wonderland. In the movie, it's Nicholas who is sent further and further down the "rabbit hole" by CRS.
  • All Is Well That Ends Well: Nicholas loses his house, family, and friends, on top of getting shot at and almost dying several times. But it's all good because it was all just a big birthday prank from his younger brother. He's told from the outset that it is a game, although we never quite find out how clued-in he is.
  • And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt: "I was drugged and left for dead in Mexico - and all I got was this stupid T-shirt".
  • Ankle Drag: An Angry Guard Dog grabs on to Nicholas' pants leg when the latter is trying to escape via Dumpster Dive. Nicholas eventually manages to shake the dog off, losing a thousand-dollar shoe in the process.
  • Arc Symbol: Games, game pieces, and toys. When Nicholas's game begins, he finds a large wooden clown toy at his home, which gives him a game key; he receives several others afterwards and has to figure how to use them to play the game. He's distracted by a child's rattle that resembles a clown, and during his first confrontation with Anson Baer (a children's book publisher), Baer's office is decorated with vintage toys and games. Even the movie poster is divided into puzzle pieces.
  • As You Know: A secretary reminds Nicholas that he is trying to be reached by a certain Elizabeth. She then reminds him that it's his ex-wife. He replies with a bitter "I know that!". After she is gone, he comments on how little he likes her for that.
  • A-Team Firing: Inverted in the cafeteria scene. The guards really don't give a damn who they might mow down in their pursuit of Nicholas.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Used to demonstrate how paranoid Nicholas is becoming. At an airport, he's stunned to see a miniature version of the wooden clown on a chair and reaches for it. Turns out to be a baby's rattle, and the mother who retrieves it looks at him like he's crazy.
  • Batman Gambit: The entire film runs on this trope, as CRS performs an entire day of deeply intensive, rigorous physical and psychological evaluation on Nicholas in order to predict exactly what he would do and how he would react in any given situation. This allows them to play him like a fiddle from the game's start to its finish.
  • Becoming the Mask: Christine's role seems to be to provide a touch of Fanservice to Nicholas's game as a distraction, and she flirts with him after their alleyway chase. By the end of the game, she seems to be developing genuine feelings for him, and he reciprocates.
  • Big Entrance: Anson Baer remarks that Nicholas falling through the roof was a great entrance.
  • And You Thought It Was a Game: Nicholas, until the bullets start flying around and his bank account gets emptied. Subverted when it turns out that The Game Never Stopped.
  • Book Safe: Nicholas keeps a revolver hidden in a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird… which CRS knew about and loaded with blanks.
  • Break the Haughty: The entire point, with the end goal being for Nicholas to achieve catharsis and emerge from the game a happier man.
  • Cell Phones Are Useless: When they are trapped in the elevator, Nicholas's cell phone doesn't get a signal. Justified as CRS made sure he could not call out for real help.
  • Chekhov's Army: A major theme in the film, revealed in the cafeteria scene in which every extra is revealed to have been a part of the game.
  • Climbing Climax: The climax leads Nicholas onto the rooftop of the CRS building where a Rooftop Confrontation ensues.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: Sitting in a diner with his ex-wife, Nicholas sees Jim Feingold (the man who administered the game's exams earlier in the film) playing a television-commercial "doctor" on the place's TV. At first thinking that the game runners have found him, he quickly realizes that "Feingold" is a TV actor (of course, given that the game runners have been watching him and are always one step ahead of him, it's quite possible that the broadcast isn't as "coincidental" as Nicholas thinks it is).
  • Compartment Shot: Of Nicholas taking his supper out of the oven.
  • The Con: Nicholas spends most of the movie trying to figure out if it's a scam. Averted as it isn't.
  • Deceptively Silly Title: The title doesn't suggest this to be a tense mystery thriller.
  • Developer's Foresight: Might as well be CRS's company motto. The amount of planning, foresight, preparation, and improvisation that's necessary to successfully run the schemes they do is mind-boggling, and next to impossible to pull off in Real Life.
    • Case in point is Nicholas's pistol in his Book Safe, which they found and replaced the bullets with blanks.
  • Didn't See That Coming: Subverted with Nicholas's gun. When he invades the building of the organization that's been running his life for the past few days with what Christine recognizes as a real gun, not one of their props, she pleads with him that it's all a big surprise party and they're not really trying to kill him. He ends up shooting his brother just as it turns out there really is a cake and it all flies horribly off the rails, driving him to jump from the rooftop… and then it turns out that, no, that was a squib, the gun's loaded with blanks, and even his suicide attempt was all in the script.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: When Nicholas destroys the smoke detector in Christine's apartment, CRS agents immediately start lighting them up with high-powered, silenced machine guns.
  • Dramatic Drop: One guy at CRS's cafeteria drops his tray when Nicholas enters. Invoked, as he is faking his surprise.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Possibly Nicholas's father.
    • Later in the movie, the trope is subverted with Nicholas himself. He tries to commit suicide by jumping off a building, but instead harmlessly falls into a dome of breakaway glass and a safety mattress.
  • The Eiffel Tower Effect: The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in several location shots.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: The ending reveals the entire thing was a game.
  • Epiphany Therapy: The game is designed based on the player's profile to shake things up and give him a dose of whatever he needs.
  • Foreshadowing: After despairing to Nicholas, sobbing and crying, Conrad has a huge grin on his face when Nicholas leaves, which is a hint that the game is just that, a harmless game.
  • Friendly Scheming: Everything is just a game. Nicholas' brother Conrad and a number of his friends and colleagues are in on it.
  • From Bad to Worse: The movie's full of examples: identity theft, losing all your money, being left for dead, being chased by police, not knowing who to trust (not even your closest allies), being stalked, having to escape a submerged car… the list goes on.
  • Fun with Acronyms: CRS stands for Consumer Recreation Services. And a few other things… all of which are manifestations of the same company.
  • Gambit Roulette and/or Xanatos Speed Chess: Consumer Recreation Services' business model is one or both of these.
    • On the roulette side, The Protagonist's game involves hacking the TV channels when he's watching TV, marooning him in another country, and pretending to blow people away with high caliber weapons. They must hire exceptionally good actors / roleplayers / grifters.
    • On the speed chess side, there is no way in hell that CRS could account for every single contingency, so it's quite possible that they improvised for the ones they couldn't handle. The scheme could be pulled off with one or two really good improvisers, e.g. Christine and the CRS rep to steer him, and the rest of the cast as regular actors (not to demean real-life actors, who must have good improvisational skills). This could explain why Claire alone has to leave for the next gig at the end.
  • Gaslighting: The modus operandi of CRS is to put Nicholas in ever more insane situations and drive him into a paranoid frenzy, until finally he tries to commit suicide — and instead is caught by a safety mattress, literally dropping in on his own surprise party.
  • Generation Xerox: The goal of "The Game" is apparently to get Nicholas to commit suicide by jumping from a great height at a birthday party — which is exactly what his father did.
  • Gilligan Cut: When trapped in the elevator, Nicholas suggests to wait until help arrives. Cut to him pushing the ceiling hatch open.
  • Going Commando / Skirts and Ladders: When trapped in an elevator with waitress Christine, Nicholas asks her to crawl out the roof hatch. An embarrassed Christine reveals she's reluctant to do this because she's not wearing anything under her short skirt. Given what happens later, this is likely deliberate so as to mess with the protagonist's head.
  • Happier Home Movie: The movie opens with video footage of a happy birthday party from Nicholas's childhood.
  • Hereditary Suicide: Nicholas fears this trope, shaped by his childhood memory of seeing his father commit suicide by jumping off the roof of their family home. The game's organizers seem to exploit this fear and try to gaslight him into doing the same; at one point Nicholas finds a police photo of his father's body captioned "LIKE MY FATHER BEFORE ME I CHOOSE ETERNAL SLEEP" (which is the page quote for the trope).
  • He's Dead, Jim: After Nicholas shoots his brother in the chest, one of CRS's agents diagnoses him dead.
  • History Repeats: Nicholas being Driven to Suicide and jumping off a rooftop like his father did at the same age.
  • Human Shield: Nicholas uses Christine as one at the CRS cafeteria.
  • I'm Not a Doctor, but I Play One on TV: Nicholas discovers the CRS representative is an actor when he sees him doing a drug commercial on TV.
  • Impairment Shot: Nicholas has been poisoned and is about to pass out. There's a shot just before he hits the ground that goes completely nutty: the camera shakes and the screen blurs with a yellow overexposed effect.
  • Insert Cameo: The hands which appear under the door in the bathroom were the hands of DP Harris Savides.
  • Invisibility Ink: CRS uses invisible ink on the waiver they handed to Nicholas, removing any trace of their interaction.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: When Nicholas is sick of being toyed with by CRS, he calls the cops into their offices, but there's nothing there.
  • Jump Scare: Conrad banging against the kitchen window from the outside while Nicholas is roaming the dark house.
  • Kick the Dog: "Like my father before me, I choose eternal sleep." "Said" by a clown. Jesus.
  • Lighter and Softer: Despite being a movie about a man being gaslit by everyone he knows until he attempts suicide, this is one of David Fincher's tamest works yet and one of very few of his to not end on an insanely bleak note. Any act of violence is completely staged by CRS using blanks and squibs, meaning nobody died for real, Nicholas is saved from his suicide attempt and comes out a far more humbled individual, and he's even got a woman interested in him.
  • Male Gaze: Exploited by CRS. Christine strips down to a lacy red bra in Nicholas's office while preparing to shower, and he can't help admiring her body. Which is why he recognizes her and her lingerie in a Polaroid he finds planted in his briefcase, a clue that she's part of the game.
  • Mean Character, Nice Actor: Everyone involved with CRS. They aren't involved with a conspiracy, and they have no plans to kill Nicholas or steal his wealth.
  • Mind Screw: CRS drives the screw deeper into Nicholas's head with each new baffling scenario.
  • Mock Headroom: A camera is planted in Nicholas's mansion via a wooden clown (don't ask), and interferes with the newscast on his television, taking over the form of Real Life journalist Daniel Schorr. He toys with Nicholas with an odd, filtered voice and glitching effects before informing him that his Game has begun.
  • Monster Clown: CRS sends Nicholas a creepy clown doll. This is especially cruel because there were clowns at one of Nicholas's boyhood birthday parties — the one at which his father killed himself.
  • Mugging the Monster: Even the most effete rich guy can be dangerous if he's pushed to the brink of his sanity and you try to carjack him.
  • Newscaster Cameo: A very unusual example with Daniel Schorr.
  • No Antagonist: No one is after Nicholas, or at least, none of them have any malicious intent, as their goal is to get him to become a better person.
  • No Ending: One of the finest examples ever filmed. Nicholas finds Christine leaving his birthday party as she prepares to play another game overseas. The two flirt warmly, and she invites him to get a coffee with her at the airport. Nicholas smiles and looks around, as if wondering if he's embarking on a new adventure or just playing the game. Fade to black before we see if he joins her.
  • Not My Driver: Nicholas steps into a cab that's subsequently locked down and driven into water.
  • Novelization: By Jeff Rovin.
  • Oh, Crap!: Christine's reaction when Nicholas finds her at the CRS cafeteria.
  • One-Person Birthday Party: Nicholas is an extremely wealthy, attractive man who is so Married to the Job that he spends his birthday working even though he's the boss, and the only thing he has to mark the occasion is a surprise birthday cupcake left by his housekeeper to go with his solitary supper.
  • Only Sane Man: Nicholas, until the pressure of "The Game" really starts to get to him. And after that, his ex-wife Elizabeth ("You're the only person I can trust").
  • Paranoid Thriller: Nicholas is gradually driven to paranoia, since he doesn't know the intentions of the people behind the game, as well as who is and who isn't involved. It turns out that The Game Never Stopped, and almost everyone was in on it.
  • Percussive Pickpocket: In a blink-and-miss scene Nicholas bumps into a man. Later he finds his American Express Card missing from his wallet. The implication is that the thief nicked his wallet, took out the card and returned the wallet unnoticed.
  • The Picture Came with the Frame: Suspecting that Christine is a CRS plant, Nicholas opens a picture frame on a counter in her apartment and finds the picture is cut from a magazine.
  • Pleasure Island: Unfortunately for Nicholas, the only "playing" that ensues is when a conspiracy of complete strangers spends the whole movie mercilessly playing with his head.
  • Plot Hole: The entire movie is dependent on premises which, at best, stretch suspension of belief to the breaking point, but the ending is nothing other than a long series of lucky guesses. Nicholas had to have not checked the gun he is carrying so as not to find the blanks in it, after having picked it up in the house that had earlier been burglarized; not use said gun to commit suicide when he is overcome with despair, instead choosing to jump off the roof he is on; pick a specific point on said roof, with no reason or indication that that spot is the one to use, miss a large collection of steel I-beams when he falls, and land safe and sound from an uncontrolled fall onto an air mattress.
  • Police Are Useless: Massive shootouts with automatic weapons in the city center, even with silenced ones, should have the cops all over the place within minutes, but they never show up to lend a hand. Makes you wonder how deep CRS's connections really run.
  • Private Military Contractors: The security guards at CRS are no rent-a-cops.
  • Ransacked Room: Nicholas returns to his house to find it's been ransacked.
  • Red Herring: Of all the characters and extras in the story, Van Orton's attorney and Anson Baer were the only ones who knew nothing of the scheme (save the invitation they received for the finale). In the end, they thought Nicholas organized the entire thing himself. Unfortunately, that also means he did genuinely embarrass himself and act like a madman in front of both earlier.
  • The Reveal: "What have you seen, Nicholas? What have you really seen? Special effects. Blanks. Squibs."
  • Revolvers Are for Amateurs: Nicholas has a revolver in his Book Safe which he holds like a rookie.
  • Riches to Rags: CRS cleans out Nicholas's bank accounts and leaves him penniless in Mexico.
  • Ripped from the Phone Book: Exaggerated for laughs. Nicholas rips the entire phone book off the chain and takes it along.
  • Rule of Symbolism: When Nicholas takes Jim Feingold hostage with a gun, Feingold is with his children in front of the albino tigers at the San Francisco Zoo. By this point, Nicholas does feel like "a tiger in a cage."
  • Scary Surprise Party: Many twists and turns finally lead to a surprise party (and a hefty bill).
  • Shaped Like Itself: The talking television advises Nicholas not to ask the CRS hotline what the object of the Game is... because finding that out IS the object of the Game.
  • Shockingly Expensive Bill: Just to give you the rough size of the bill... look at the movie's budget. It's $50 million.
  • Shout-Out: "I don't care about the money. I'm pulling back the curtain. I want to meet the wizard," to The Wizard of Oz (when Dorothy finds out that the god-like ruler of Emerald City is a mere human behind a curtain).
  • Slipping a Mickey: Christine drugs Nicholas so he can be shipped to Mexico for a lesson in humility.
  • Soft Glass: It's breakable, but can still cut.
  • Staged Shooting: The climax and its roof jump are filmed because it's a party.
  • Stealth Pun:
    • The book To Kill a Mockingbird contains the device which makes it possible to kill an actual mockingbird: a gun.
    • In the finale, Nicholas literally drops in on his own surprise party, crashing through a dome of breakaway glass and landing on an enormous safety mattress.
  • Super-Fun Happy Thing of Doom: Consumer Recreation Services… hmmm, doesn't sound too bad, does it?
  • Surprise Party: At the restaurant early on, Conrad arranges for a choir of waiters to sing Happy Birthday to You! as a surprise for Nicholas.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: The game IS just a game, and one designed to help Nicholas let go of his trauma and begin appreciating his life. After a tender moment of reconciling with Conrad, we see a large invitation fill the screen, cordially inviting us to Nicholas Van Orton's 48th birthday party. Cue a huge gathering of friends, a live band, and champagne as Nicholas genuinely enjoys himself for the first time in years... and potentially takes a step towards a relationship with Christine/Claire.
  • The Television Talks Back: After apparently being rejected by Consumer Recreation Services, Nicholas finds a clown mannequin in his driveway. As he examines it in his living room, he's startled when the newscaster on his television appears to mention him by name several times, finally dropping the facade and addressing him directly:
    Newscaster: This is your game, Nicholas… and welcome to it.
  • Tell Me About My Father: Nicholas asks Ilsa about his father, who killed himself when Nicholas was still young.
  • Traitor Shot: The shot on Christine's face in the car when Nicholas reveals the password to his Swiss bank account.
  • Trapped in a Sinking Car: Invoked. Nicholas's car is plunged off a pier as part of the super-scary "game" to make his life more exciting. He manages to escape by pulling down the window using a crank that's left in his possession earlier on.
  • Trickster Girlfriend: Christine. Downplayed, since "trickster" is a part of her job as a CRS employee, but she does seem to have genuine feelings for Nicholas.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: Nicholas's traumatic experience of watching his father jump to his death is explored through flashbacks.
  • Undisclosed Funds: The bill for the eponymous game is left unrevealed, yet it is apparently enough to leave two millionaire brothers stunned. Conrad is quite relieved when Nick offers to split the bill.
  • Undressing the Unconscious: After Nicholas is drugged by Christine, he blacks out. When he next awakens, he's in a cemetery in Mexico and is now wearing different clothes.
  • Van in Black: Nicholas finds himself being terrorized by people in various vehicles marked "CRS." One's a cabbie (Crown Royal Sedans), another a group in a maintenance van (Cable Repair Services), etc.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Line said by Nicholas when he and Christine suddenly find themselves alone at the alleged emergency entrance.


Video Example(s):


This is... the bill.

The itemized bill for Nicholas' Game is the size of the San Francisco phone book. His brother is only too happy to accept his offer to pay half. To give you an idea how much it was, the movie's budget (in 1997) was $50 mil.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (1 votes)

Example of:

Main / UndisclosedFunds

Media sources: