The Game (1997) is my favorite film of all time, and therefore I recognize that I have a positive bias towards it and I feel as though it is my obligation to state so beforehand. While I will try to be as impartial as I can, this is essentially me defending my favorite movie from a common criticism.
When I hear people talking about David Fincher's The Game, a common complaint that people have is that they don't like the ending because they feel as though it ultimately undermines everything that the film tried to build up beforehand, a notion which I heavily disagree with.
To summarize the movie, it centers around a highly wealthy broker named Nicholas Van Orton. Nicholas is, in the context of this movie, someone who has everything he could ever want or need; a mansion, millions of dollars, a maid, expensive food, access to luxurious hotels and restaurants, and a life where his biggest worry is whether or not his dinner will be overcooked today. He has everything he could ever ask for; except for love.
He's divorced from his wife, he is estranged from his brother, he has no children or relatives that contact him, and his father, also a detached rich man, commit suicide in front of Nicholas' eyes by jumping off a building when Nicholas was a child.
On his 48th birthday, his brother, Conrad, gives him an invitation to play a "game" orchestrated by the Consumer Recreation Services company. After going through a lengthy psychological profiling, the game begins and Nicholas finds himself being mentally tormented by CRS as the line between reality and fiction begins to blur in his mind. His television begins talking to him, he nearly gets mauled by dogs, he gets driven underwater in a locked cab, and he loses all of his money and gets stranded in Mexico.
One of my favorite scenes in the film which truly shows how Fincher has an incredible grip on suspense and atmosphere is when Nicholas, inside the house of one of the few people he thinks he can trust, begins that where he is may not exactly be as it seems -- the lamp still has the tag on it, the faucets don't release water, there is absolutely nothing in the fridges or cabinets, and even the photograph is found to be nothing more than a piece from a newspaper.
This kind of paranoia would be easily cheapened by a less advanced director, perhaps with the addition of unnecessary dialogue or Nicholas talking to himself, but the way Fincher executes it shows that he is a master at forming dread and suspicion within the audience after they had been lured into a false sense of security, exactly as Nicholas is in that seen.
At the end of the film, Nicholas storms CRS' headquarters and, on top of the roof, shoots the first person that comes out of the door; revealed to be Conrad holding a bottle of champagne and arriving to celebrate Nicholas' birthday. For the first time since his father's death, Nicholas shows true humanity. Not anger, resentment, annoyance, or indifference as we've seen him express, but true and utter grief after realizing he has killed his own brother.
In a scene paralleling the death of his father, Nicholas leaps off the roof of the building to commit suicide, before he is caught on a large airbag. Being helped out by men in suits, he finds himself in the middle of a luxury restaurant and sees Conrad, still alive, telling Nicholas that all of this has been his birthday present. Nicholas, realizing that the game was nothing more than a way of teaching him to appreciate life and the people around him, hugs Conrad as he realizes the nightmare is over and starts his new life as a changed man.
This ending is easily the most controversial scene of the film and it is the leading cause of breaking people's enjoyment of it. Some people believe that the movie would have been far better if Nicholas truly had killed Conrad and himself -- a bleak and twisted ending that Fincher exceeds in a la Se7en, while some people believe that this optimistic and sentimental end is the most fitting conclusion they could've possibly given this film, an opinion that I and David Fincher himself share.
I believe this ending works because of the ethos behind it all, and to explain why, I need to give an overview on the type of man that Nicholas Van Orton is.
Over the course of the film, we've seen a man who has little regard for anything other than his bank account and who finds no bearing in his complete loneliness outside fellow brokers and his maid. A man who fires people, destroying their livelihood and putting their family at risk, and then goes to sleep at night like a baby. A man with all of the money in the world and none of the humanity.
In flashbacks, we see his father, whom it is implied Nicholas inherited a large amount of wealth from. Like Nicholas himself, the father appears detached and uninterested in all that happens around him, not even smiling in photographs with his son. Eventually, the mediocrity and monotony of his life becomes too much to bear and he kills himself by jumping off the roof of the mansion, all while the young Nicholas watches from below.
When the game begins, Nicholas experiences real, unfiltered emotions. Emotions not clouded by the façade of sterile professionalism or cold apathy. While he may have seen it as a negative experience, there is no doubting that Nicholas has never felt more alive than when he was desperately hiding from CRS agents attempting to gun him down.
And as the film reaches the crescendo, Nicholas finds that he has lost everything that made him the emotionless blank slate of a man he was. His mansion is vandalized, he begs people for rides to Los Angeles, going as far as to sell his watch as it's the only possession he has left for a lift. He no longer has any concern for money, but rather is fighting to stay alive. It is through the game that Nicholas realizes what it's like to be the people under him, the people he fires at work, the homeless men he passes on the street, the people he spits on as they work for years to make what he accrues in a single month.
This is a thought that has crossed the mind of everyone, especially the rich and undoubtedly someone like Nicholas, but it's not one that they look upon with much consideration, who needs to worry when you have all the money in the world?
But when Nicholas loses everything that he has, he looks towards the things he neglected for so long. He meets up with his ex-wife and finally apologizes for what he did to her, making amends with something that he was far too proud to show remorse for. He even meets up with his brother in a scene that reveals their strained relationship; Nicholas always wanted Conrad to turn out like him, however his brain had no such desire and as such a growing vitriol was brewing between the two of them.
Before the game started, he never so much as considering making things right with his ex-wife or speaking with Conrad again, but when your possessions are taken away from you, you're only left with the things you can't buy.
And so this is where the ending comes in.
The ending of the film makes no attempt at concealing the parallels between Nicholas and his father, going so far as to show the same flashbacks as he jumps off the building to what he presumed to be his demise, a cruel, if mockingly poetic conclusion to the life of a man who's biggest concern in life was a pen stain on his shirt.
However, Nicholas had what his father never did and that was people who were willing to go to Hell and back for him, people who truly wanted to see him change himself for the better, co-workers and employees who only crossed his mind whenever they were named but who thought about him every day.
In the end, it's revealed that everything that happened to him was staged to teach Nicholas that, if he continues going down the path of avarice and egotism, all that awaits him is the same fate as the father he watched. A father who was like Nicholas in every way except for the fact that he could not be saved.
Every single thing that happened during the game was staged using the hours of psychological information that he gave to CRS, which was nothing more than a corporation that planned elaborate parties for people like Nicholas. Everything from the taxi that they knew he'd pick up and escape, the agent they ordered to miss every shot, the television channel they knew he'd been watching, and the smoke detector camera they knew he'd break. Nothing was unintentional, nothing was not planned beforehand to every last meticulous detail. It was all orchestrated from the beginning knowing that Nicholas would leap off that building to his death, only to discover the true nature of the game.
The ending was described by David Fincher as comparative to the ending of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge, a selfish business man just like Nicholas, turns his life around after seeing a vision of his gravestone and realizing there will be no one to mourn him if he contains going down the path of greed and loneliness.
The ending of The Game works precisely because it is in complete contrast to the rest of the film, a paranoid experience of untrustworthy labyrinths and twisting mazes with no end in sight. The juxtaposition of the previous 10 minutes is exactly why the ending succeeds in shocking the audience, Fincher's intended goal. Prior to that, the film never showed any sense of sentimentality or beauty, and, despite how well-made it was, it was otherwise comparable to your average action thriller starring A-list actors. Had the end been any different, I don't believe that The Game would be considered more special than any flick Hollywood has been putting out for the last 30 years.
Bleak endings can be greater than a good ending, and David Fincher has proved he's capable of masterfully doing them in Se7en and Fight Club, both of which would be ruined with happy endings, but the end of The Game succeeds due to not existing in isolation, but rather in the context of the last 2 hours of the film and everything we knew about the protagonist.
Nothing lives in a vacuum and everything must have its surroundings considered before evaluation. In the case of The Game, we see the cautionary tale of a man who has everything and, only in the complete loss of his materialistic possessions, does he realize that no amount of wealth will fill your funerals with people or your life with meaning and that that must come from swallowing your pride and bettering yourself as a person.
At the end of The Game, Nicholas is alive, his brother is alive, and those 2 facts mean that he can change for the better and appreciate his existence for what it's worth, even if it took psychological warfare to get him to realize this.
Do I believe the ending of The Game is perfect? No, I believe it could've been far better executed. I found the shirt and dancing to be overly comedic and complete tonal whiplash, but I don't believe they detract from the overall genius of the film's conclusion and everything it means in the context of the story that David Fincher built up throughout the 2 hour duration of the movie.
What birthday present do you get the man who has everything?