David Fincher’s Game is a whirlwind of trickery, deceit and illusion.
Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, the victim of a never-ending chain of elaborate pranks – a thoughtful birthday gift from his brother, Conrad (Sean Penn). The real-life game, tailored to each individual player, begins benignly enough as Nicholas crosses a few unfortunate boobytraps: a leaky pen, a locked suitcase, and a clumsy waitress (Deborah Kara Unger). Things soon turn ugly and Nicholas finds himself fearing for his life at the hands of anonymous ringmasters. With no one to trust, he takes control and plays them at their own game. Or so it seems.
The best part about watching all the mind games is that it’s never clear whether it’s a trick on Nicholas or the audience. A man attempts to mug Nicholas when he’s sat in his car. Nicholas calmly shows his gun, making the man flee in terror. Supposedly the thief was just another pawn in the game, and so his reaction implies that Nicholas really does have the upper hand in having his gun. It’s never clear what is real and what isn’t. Like a Darren Brown stunt, the twists keep coming right to the very end – even defying death and transcending time and space. Fincher, true to style, forbids a false sense of security that other psychological thrillers offer, making the film a cut above the rest. As with Fincher’s Se7en, the protagonist’s mental deterioration is evoked onto the audience through the ever-changing character alliances, making the viewer as much of a player in the game as Nicholas. Psychological thrillers are rarely so immersive.
The only criticism is that Michael Douglas isn’t all that thrilling to watch. His character is dull (although that’s kind of the point) and seemingly has very little development by the end. The conservative acting is saved, however, by the film’s dark humour and Conrad’s devilish behaviour. Like Connie, the audience gets a sadistic satisfaction from watching his uptight, rude and self-entitled brother suffer. The film is almost a reversal of conventions in that Nicholas is punished for being an unsympathetic character, rather than a traditional hero type being rewarded. Just another mind game in The Game.
Daniel Carbone brings internal grief and depression into the open by voicing the unspeakable in his artistic adolescent male drama.
After tragically losing their friend, a group of adolescent boys struggle to bear their spiralling emotions. Tommy and his older brother, Eric, each externalise their feelings differently, but support one another in their idle ramblings through the empty landscapes. While Tommy has to face the loss of a friend and his brother’s reckless outbursts, Eric is troubled by Tristan’s desire to die and the haunting discovery of Ian’s death. The coming-of-age drama simultaneously contrasts and reflects the boys’ suffocating traumas with their expansive and idyllic environment.
Shot like a nature documentary, the boys’ acting is as natural as their vast surroundings. Early on the camera is handheld and its shaking while the brothers play-fight gives the impression of observational footage rather than a scripted performance. The final scene of Tommy in the rain is also innocently authentic, capturing his remaining childlike naivety. The film opens with a close-up of a snake devouring a fish, setting the film’s overarching theme of death. Animals are constantly equated to death in the film, both literally and subtly like when an out-of-focus herd of cows mirror the tombstones in the foreground. Thus, while the natural setting appears serene in its stillness and lush greenery, it is laden with dead animal carcasses and the connotation of more loss to come. Surrounded by so much decay, the boys are forced to recognise their own mortality and to “think about dying.” The outdoors therefore represents the surface of youth – supposedly carefree and full of energy – while rotting inside are scattered forms of lifeless animals – the troublesome thoughts of ceasing to exist. Nature seemingly offers emotional freedom which the boys lack internally, giving a sense of calm to their suffering.
Whereas children typically represent joy and innocence, here the boys are mostly silent and even when playing they still involve the concept of death by trying to pin one another down like a pack of adolescent pups asserting dominance. It’s also significant that there are no phones or computer games, the only piece of tech is Eric’s CD player, and even that is almost silent to the audience. The lack of sound in the film highlights both the tranquillity of nature and the loneliness within it. While offering the boys an escape, it cannot give them a resolution. It also accentuates the thesis of inner struggles rather than exterior ones. Carbone’s film is so quiet that it speaks loudly about depression and suicide. Even the colour palette is muted – the characters wear only dull, flat browns, greens and greys, with the exception of the red shirts during the fight scene with the gun. They blend in with the endless greenery, again showing how they feel stifled in their conflicting emotions. It is also mundanely slow to focus on thoughts and feelings rather than actions, those of the characters and those of the audience. It forces the viewer to contemplate the emotions both depicted and implied on screen, evoking the same sense of frustration the characters experience for not understanding their pain.
Depression is so seldom discussed as openly, mirroring the opening scene of the snake; Carbone captures the rare truth of depression like a ground-breaking discovery in nature. It is never-seen-before footage of shared male vulnerability. Likewise, the boys cannot find answers for their grief and anger, as though it is camouflaged amongst their sublime surroundings. The film is purposely vague to mirror the boys’ own lack of comprehension about how they feel. Whenever one of the boys asks a question about death, the response is always “I don’t know.” Hide Your Smiling Faces doesn’t know the answers either, but it should be celebrated for provoking the questions and normalising depression.