Michael Douglas in The Game

The Game

It’s Always Quite a Fall

What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? The game of life turns out to be about dying.


If only Walker Percy were still alive! Writers Brancato and Ferris must be two of his biggest fans. The author of The Moviegoer would recognize his ideas unmistakably by the film’s exquisite rendering of a man so lost in the cosmos that he isn’t even aware of his despair. The question that Walker Percy spent his entire life asking—How do you speak to a man sensibly about ultimate truth in a Christ-haunted and Christ-forgetting culture?—is not only truthfully but beautifully answered by The Game.

Nicholas Van Orton is the man who has everything, and thus values nothing. As an insanely successful control-freak investment banker who disdains all those who should be closest to him, Van Orton is at once, as Percy puts it, "both the hero and asshole of the cosmos." His wealth and power have sated him to the point of extreme boredom, and it is clear that all viable re-entry points have either already been attempted or are simply too base for a man of his stature. What are the conditions under which such a man could actually see the Parthenon and not be bored, or in this case, the Golden Gate Bridge? In Van Orton’s case, it takes the work of Consumer Recreation Services, a gift that Van Orton receives from his younger brother for his 48th birthday—the age at which his father before him (like another father and son in another Percy novel) committed suicide.

Van Orton is mildly amused by his brother’s gift, and one day finds himself coincidentally in their new San Francisco office, so he decides to inquire. Here he meets an administrator named Feingold who tempts him into trying the game with the same logic that Satan used on Eve: first, admit that you’re interested; it’s a no-risk obligation. Van Orton then fills out a questionnaire that sounds more like a confessional transcription than an application to a recreational service: I sometimes hurt small animals, I feel guilty when masturbating, etc.

But CRS might as well stand for Christian Redemption Services, because the company and its omniscient database immediately begins pursuing Van Orton like some deranged hound of heaven on steroids, backing him up against the wall of his greeds, gluttonies and lusts for what reason neither we nor Van Orton know. Initially, Van Orton is intrigued by the attention; he smiles as he walks into the airport and realizes, with the shock of discovery, that every exchange, glance and action is imbued with tremendous potential significance. He is returned to that state of innocent childhood belief that around each corner the scene has been constructed just prior to his arrival and will collapse just after his departure. But he doesn’t know how far it goes, where it starts and ends, and why. Like life, he is only armed with the one clue that the purpose of the game is to discover the purpose of the game.

CRS gives Van Orton the full Job treatment: as his security, safety, and luxury are all pulled out from under him with astonishing speed, he is forced to confront the bankruptcy of his own soul and the fragility of his own life. What he doesn’t know, and nor do we until the end, is that he has his own personal Beatrice guiding him through the underworld his life has become, and passively but definitively leading his action every misstep of the way. The waitress Christine is almost always with him, and there are little clues here and there, that she is in on it, such as when she mutters to herself, "Watch out for boards and nails; there should be a fire escape," as she leads Van Orton through the second floor of an abandoned building before jumping into the garbage cans in the alley below. One of the nice touches comes at the end when we learn that his guide’s real name is not Christine, but Clare, who happens to be the patron saint of television, a perfect choice for a story so completely layered and selectively filtered.

From the allegorical point of view, The Game’s great strength is in its depiction of the relationship between free will and original sin. With CRS in place of God, Van Orton is placed into situations where by varying degrees he is or is not allowed to exercise his controlling tendencies. When Van Orton is least curious about CRS, they are casually there in the form of a bum asking for money or a toilet stall occupant who has run out of toilet paper. By the film’s end, when Van Orton believes he has regained his control, he is actually playing as tightly and closely to the CRS script as is possible.

The climactic scene has Van Orton discovering that this is his sin, and that he cannot actually have control. Staring into the mirror of his own soul, Van Orton judges and condemns himself to death, choosing the inheritance of his father’s and grandfather’s suicide. In the most incredible scene of free-will-as-God’s-destiny ever played, Van Orton jumps to his death and lands perfectly inside the circled X that CRS has scripted for his game. Van Orton falls, quite literally, of his own choosing, and lands squarely in the arms of his savior. After reviving him and checking for cuts, one of the medics says, "It’s always quite a fall." At the film’s conclusion, Feingold congratulates Van Orton saying, "It’s a good thing you jumped, because if you didn’t I was supposed to push you."

Ultimately, The Game pulls off in allegory what Christian cinema has failed to do convincingly or persuasively since the advent of film. The Game, as one of the CRS decoys says to Van Orton early on, is all about John 9:25—"Whereas once I was blind, now I can see." Whereas current cinema gives us new mythologies that are simply repackaged old myths, The Game delivers the old eternal truth in the wrappings of a new mystery. Without a single preachy cliche, without any embarrassment or camp, The Game forces Van Orton and the viewer to embrace the most fundamental paradox of the Christian faith: he who would save his life must first lose it.

posted by editor ::: March 10, 2001 ::: philms ::: (1) Comments