Much is said about David Fincher’s obsession with detail, every frame having to believably exist in the world he has created. Furthermore, this attention to detail extends beyond visual narrative storytelling. It also commands every protagonist Fincher has ever brought to life.
One character in particular most mirrors Fincher’s own obsession with perfection—Michael Douglas’ Nicholas van Orton. In The Game, Douglas portrays a character so seduced by the complusion to maintain his lavish lifestyle that he has subjected himself to a lonely state of living.
It is within the character of van Orton that Fincher brings to life his most honest portrayal of loneliness. Whereas in Gone Girl we were shown loneliness through the prism of married life, or within Fight Club by the shackles of a consumerist society, The Game projects loneliness in its truest form. Unless others place themselves in the same vicinity as van Orton, our protagonist never engages with humanity. He is as internally isolated as he is externally.
Fincher tackles loneliness in a sardonic manner, empowering his titular character with all the gadgets and money that he could possibly want. That money, though, is all that van Orton has. While economic power often represents freedom—at least in the ability to freely indulge one’s whims and desires—Fincher strips freedom away from money. To Fincher, the wealthier the character, the less he has to live for. This is morbidly portrayed through the suicide of Nicholas’ father, and then wittily juxtaposed with our titular character’s similar fate in the final act.
To get to that final act—a period where Nicholas’ loneliness is now bare for the audience to peer at—one has to peel back the layers and examine the film’s opening scenes. It is within the initial frames of The Game that Fincher uses visual cues to point toward the façade that is Nicholas’ life.
The first time we meet Nicholas, suited and booted, he’s driving through San Francisco on his daily commute to work. What’s interesting with this shot is that his car is the only one driving in that direction, with trolley tracks symmetrically following his wheels. This is an undeniably important fragment of the film. It cements the idea that Van Orton lacks freedom in his life and that, whatever he does to break out of it, there will always be something invisible guiding him. This points to the film’s finale and plot twist so masterfully because while Nicholas is playing ‘the game,’ he believes that he is in firm control of his life. He believes that he should jump off the roof at the end; he believes that he shot his brother, Conrad, on that same roof moments before. Ironically, the opening shot discussed is one that Fincher perversely dangles in front of the audience. He is, essentially, holding the last piece to the puzzle and refusing to relinquish it to Nicholas.
That drive through San Francisco culminates in Nicholas dining with the only person he seems to have a relationship with, Conrad. The illusion that Fincher sets up during this meal is one that attempts to show us that Nicholas is not lonely; that Nicholas has family. The screenplay makes this scene read like a normal gathering, hence the illusion, but the real trump card held within Fincher’s sleeve is the framing. Whenever Conrad talks, his black suit blends perfectly with the dark background and colour palette. All that illuminates is his face, showing an openness toward his brother. Whenever Nicholas replies, though, Fincher pulls the camera back. This reveals a brighter background, with Nicholas surrounded by glasses, lamps and windows. This is a powerful sequence because it reveals how guarded our titular character is, in comparison to his brother, and how much it detaches him from humanity.
This meal ends with Conrad giving Nicholas the infamous CRS card—a gift that kicks ‘the game’ into motion. When Nicholas is driving back home, Fincher once again taunts us (and his character). Despite again being in a free-moving vehicle, electric lines above him seem to guide his journey. The car is perfectly placed beneath them, replacing the trolley tracks from before. Nicholas’ loneliness works in tandem with his lack of freedom.
Van Orton’s first encounter with the CRS sees him sport a grey suit set against a white shirt and black tie. Those three mundane colours, interestingly, parallel the walls of the offices. Fincher achieves two things here. On one hand, he is showing Van Orton to be at his calmest when in prestigious environments. The blending of colours paints him to be nothing more than a bourgeois businessman, ever at ease in corporate environments. On the other hand, it speaks of an attraction. Although Nicholas believes he is in firm control of his life, the CRS reels him in and forces him to act, thus nullifying his perceived freedom once more. The irony is that Van Orton yearns for freedom and company, yet his hunger for money is what holds him back.
Within Van Orton’s house, and just outside of it, we are met with that dull, earthy colour palette. Yet outside of his house, colour seems to burst with life, be that the neon palette that Fincher employs, or the softer tones. The colour that follows Nicholas around, almost like a grey cloud hanging over his head, highlights his loneliness and helps the audience feel that loneliness. The operative word here is feel. Fincher makes no attempt to offer the audience a chance at empathising with the main character. There is no pandering, no exploitative moments of emotion. Nicholas exists as a real person, with real problems. He just happens to also be a douchebag. We identify not with his being, but rather his loneliness.
One of the most captivating and interesting frames in The Game arrives when Nicholas awakens in a Mexican graveyard. It is no coincidence that Fincher, a man obsessed with every detail within each frame, dresses Nicholas in all white. He disappears among the white gravestones. Fincher further hides his protagonist in a gorgeous long shot, highlighting the meaningless life he commands. He is no different to the dead bodies which he walks among; he is purposeless and alone in the world.
These colour palettes, these frames filled to the brim with detail, are how Fincher enables the audience to feel Nicholas’ loneliness. It isn’t expository dialogue that does it, nor is it flashbacks or a sudden turn of events. The Game is a masterclass in creating an unlikable character who nevertheless manages to make the audience identify with a facet of his struggle.
The Game is often maligned for not having a single character for the audience to shout for and celebrate. This criticism ignores Fincher’s storytelling through visuals. He doesn’t want us to care about the character, he simply wants us to feel Nicholas’ loneliness.
The Game works because Fincher offers you two ways to watch the film: Enjoy the twists and turns of the plot visible at surface level, or mine beneath that to experience a tale of melancholy and isolation that elides plot and instead takes the viewer on a visual, emotional journey.
As previously published on Audiences Everywhere