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The Christmas Carol Connection

Current events in the real world may be coloring my perception of this movie, over and above the way I would have already been predisposed to look back on it through rose-colored glasses as one of the movies of my youth. But if The Game can be seen as “a postmodern version of A Christmas Carol” (as Fincher himself described it), then I really believe this film has a useful subtext.

Recognizing that subtext may be partly contingent upon knowing the film’s ending. So even though this film is now 20 years old, and the statute of limitations for spoiling it may have run out, if you have not seen The Game, go watch it now, before these forthcoming spoilers ruin it for you.

Wikipedia defines catharsis as “the purification and purgation of emotions — particularly pity and fear — through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration.” Nicholas Van Orton certainly undergoes an extreme change in emotion like that at the end of The Game. As he takes a suicidal leap from a rooftop and comes crashing down through the skylight of another building, the character sees images from his childhood. That he lands on an inflatable stunt bag in a ballroom full of familiar faces, people who care about him, might be seen as a narrative cop-out, something that strains credulity.

Creators aren’t always the best judge of their own work, but for what it’s worth, Fincher himself now seems to regard The Game as having third-act problems. Because of course, real life doesn’t always offer a safety cushion like that to break our fall. Still, in his commentary for the Criterion Collection’s Blu-Ray edition of The Game, Fincher said, “This isn’t a movie about real life. It’s a movie about movies.”

The moment he crashes through that skylight — all throughout the film, perhaps — Nicholas Van Orton can be seen as an audience stand-in. He may not be relatable from a socio-economic standpoint, but you could probably write a whole essay about the way his character interacts with the plot, and how it frames him as a surrogate for filmgoers that way. CRS is basically a movie studio, complete with a commissary full of actors. It stages the production of its “game” just for him, just for us, making us jump through numerous narrative hoops so we can feel something.

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By the end, the movie has led us on a merry chase, trapping us in the back of a runaway taxi cab and in the middle of other tense situations with Nicholas. It has stripped the investment banker of his vanity, turning him into a literal dumpster diver, before entombing him alive in Mexico with nothing but his father’s personally engraved wristwatch to use for bartering. Pretty soon, the same major-league asshole who was unwilling to play the good Samaritan and pass toilet paper to a guy in a bathroom stall would be forced, himself, to wander into a diner in a dirty white suit and beg for a ride from anyone who would listen.

Nicholas comes out the other side of these humbling experiences a better person, more of a real human being, with a new lease on life. Suddenly the rich prick is now a little nicer to others. And in the time-honored tradition of Ebenezer Scrooge, maybe the audience can take something away from that.

Filmed in dark and steely tones, The Game has a chilliness to it, which might give it too much emotional distance for some. But under its cold skin, there lurks the beating heart of a humanist perspective, however wry and weary it might be. This is evident in the way composer Howard Shore’s score for the film invites us in with its somber piano cue, a lonely cocktail-lounge melody for a 48-year-old named Nicholas (who is no saint, but who will come to appreciate the spirit of Christmas, in this Christmas movie that is not a Christmas movie).

In spite of himself, and whatever other interpretation he might hold, Fincher did manage 20 years ago to craft a movie with multiple layers to pick apart. One of those layers is the Christmas Carol layer. To that end, The Game does have some application to real life.

This is probably one of the few Fincher films that is not immediately guaranteed to leave a person feeling bad at the end. Art can be therapeutic, and in its own dark, devilish way, The Game offers catharsis and a reminder of what’s truly important in life. Call it mere escapism – taking the blue pill instead of the red one, staying inside the Matrix but in 2017, that feels like a nice antidote to some of the other things going on in the world right now.

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