MICHAEL DOUGLAS – SEAN PENN – THE GAME – 1997
Do not try to reduce this film to only one meaning.
It is obviously a film centered on the relationship between an elder son and his father when the father commits suicide in front of the child’s eyes when he is 48 and the child is about six or eight. The case is made more complex with the fact that there is a younger son who the elder son took care of as his brother, which is natural, but in a way oppressive in the absence of the father. Even trickier is the fact that the elder son has taken over the family estate (and business), has been married but is divorced and lives alone on the estate with the housekeeper of long ago, of the time when he was a child, hence who has known his father, though she is either older than she looks, and hence too old to take care of such an estate, or she was very young at the time of the suicide and hence cannot really remember much about the father. That connection to the past is rather loose since Ilsa should be at the least 20 at the time of the suicide and should have been hired when she was eighteen. But that is young for a servant who is now the housekeeper and has been for a long time. Otherwise forty years later she should be at retiring age and should have entered that service when she was rather 25 or 28.
The second element is the rivalry between two brothers in the absence of the father who spectacularly stepped out of life. Then the whole shebang being devised by the younger brother, it is a very perverse way for him to remind his elder brother whose forty-eighth birthday is celebrated today that their father committed suicide on exactly the same occasion by jumping from the top of a high chimney onto the flagstones of a terrace behind the family estate. Perverse and morbid if not even worse than morbid. With a suicide note supposedly signed by the elder son, Nicholas or Nick, saying “Like my father before me, I choose eternal sleep.” Note this suicide note is slightly bizarre because of the present tense directed at Nicholas himself in the game. But it is supposed to be read after the death of the suicidee, and that is hyper important for the suicidee who would use the preterit, the past if you prefer, because he is before committing his suicide projecting himself mentally into what is going to happen after his suicide is in the past. And in the past, it would even be worse because the effect would be multiplied on Nicholas since it might mean for Nicholas in the game he is dead. This rivalry is enacted to the very end of the game: harsh confrontation of the two brothers in the night in some San Francisco street stairs; the “accidental” killing of Conrad, the younger brother, by Nicholas on the roof of the skyscraper from which he is going to jump (or he would have been thrown over by one actor, if he had not jumped by himself), reenacting his father’s own suicide; and the new confrontation of the two after Conrad’s rebirth, resurrection and Nicholas great fall like some Humpty Dumpty. The last touch on the two brothers will be some kind of reconciliation when Nicholas suggests sharing the bill and Conrad accepts.
So far that is banal and that would only make a good psychological melodrama, a drama with a good ending. But it is so much more.
First, it is a game but the game is played in the real world with real means and with as little visible cheating as possible. All the bullets have been changed to blanks, though the gun Nicholas uses is from the “To Kill a Mockingbird” copy hiding a very powerful handgun (at the top of the library in the family estate), and at the end the actress playing Christine will have to convince Nicholas that his gun has real bullets whereas all the other guns used in the game only had blanks. This is slightly hard to believe for us because the shooting of a gun from the game punctures a tire in one of the chasing episodes, and the machine guns, or so, used by the CRS posse when they try to neutralize him when he gets berserk at Christine’s do make many holes in the setting. Of course, it is nothing but a cinema scene, so everything is fake but in the film, it is a real situation that probably explains the price of the game because of all the hundreds of bullets holes that have to be exploded artificially to make Nicholas believe the CRS agents are using real bullets. We, of course, can see the treachery at every corner in that labyrinthine plot, but Nicholas is not supposed to see it though at times it is slightly too obvious. Some scenes are even comical and emphasized as such by some comment from Nicholas like “Dinner for two, please” when Christine and Nicholas emerge from the two dumpsters behind a Chinese restaurant. As some would say, too good to be true.
Second, we are projected into a world where crazy adventures can happen virtually but as if they were real. The film is a metaphor for virtual reality and games in that virtual world, virtual reality games that are so true that we believe they are real life. What is surprising is that several times, often to save their skins, some actors reveal it is a game, to the point that Nicholas believes it and wants to step out, to pull the curtain, to stop the game. And he discovers he cannot, and he also discovers the actors who have revealed it is a game are still in the game and still working for it, even when they are supposed to be in their own private life. An effort is even made to prove to Nicholas the main CRS man, Jim Feingold, is a simple family man with children visiting the zoo. A metaphor that could mean in the future (of the film as well as our own future) reality will be a blend of virtual reality and real reality and the divide between the two could be difficult to capture all the time.
Beyond this idea of a metaphor it could also be considered as a real description of the mind of a person involved in some kind of psychotic episode (I will not say schizophrenia because psychiatrists are finally realizing schizophrenia does not exist and is only an extreme form of psychosis) when the real reality of his/her experience cannot be easily disentangled from the virtual reality of his/her second personality, the two sides of this split personality not being clearly separated and distinguishable for the subject him/herself. And a few times Nicholas thinks he is getting “crazy” and some of the characters, like his lawyer, Sam Sutherland, plays the game by insisting on his having to be worried or not, or the clerk at the hotel who plays surprised when Nicholas does not remember the night before there, though he did not come to that hotel on the night before. Why on earth do they have his credit card at the reception counter?
The fourth approach is what some people insisted upon: it is a demonstration of how easily we can be manipulated by people; organizations, criminal or not, political or not; social networks or other “neutral” organizations of the type; not to speak of the media and the manipulators of the media, politicians, advertisers, and other gurus or preachers who want to influence the people into believing this or that, into doing this or that. The film, of course, shows that such a game requires hundreds of people being hired to play the game in very simple and ordinary structures, including the police and other security institutions, lawyers and businessmen or businesswomen. If we push aside this “game” concept and just consider the “manipulation” we can say this film reveals how easy it is to make someone believe in anything at any time with some immediate reactions from these people who are being manipulated, reactions that can be irreversible or quasi-irreversible. It is such manipulations that enable some political organizations to become powerful in spite of the unethical arguments they use in the shape of fear and anger. It is through such channels that racism, white supremacy, sexism, genderism and many other ideologies targeting a certain type of people they want to be ostracized and segregated against manage to make their opinions valid.
Consider the case of Catalonia where only 40% or so of the people voted in an illegal referendum giving a majority, but if we consider that all those who would have voted no decided not to vote at all since the vote was illegal, 95% of 40% is only about 38% of the population. Even if we consider a 20% abstention rate we do not have a majority. This explains then that the President of Catalonia decided, probably under strong pressure from Europe and some countries like France, to go on negotiating with Madrid towards more autonomy but not secession. It is obvious when a situation like this referendum is dramatized by courts, governments, political organizations and businesses into some kind of civil strife that could lead to a civil war, people are pushed into corners and very strict and strong opinions and actions that do not represent reason or any sensible approach.
As such this film should be pondered upon and meditated.
One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall
And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call
And call Alice, when she was just small
When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go
And you've just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice, I think she'll know
When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the red queen's off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head
Written by Grace Wing Slick • Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group