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The Meaning of Money in The Game

The Meaning of Money in <em>The Game</em>

I have a very precise memory of watching The Game for the first time, of sitting on the couch in the family room of my childhood home, inserting the VHS tape, and being totally taken in. At the time I was overcome by the specificity of the details in the film and the illusion of control that they gave me, making me feel smarter than the movie before ever so delightfully pulling the rug out from under me.

Every time I’ve revisited the film since, it has opened up more, or perhaps more accurately, closed in on itself, collapsed in form to reveal a world, our world today, which, as it turns out, is just a plaything for the rich. What stands out to me now isn’t the detail-laden plot—about a man named Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) and a strange experiential game gifted to him by his brother, created by a company called Consumer Recreation Services—but things like Daniel Schorr, as himself, talking about rising unemployment and a legislative effort to get small businesses to provide health insurance to their workers. Or Van Orton’s utter disgust as he momentarily holds a bag of someone else’s takeout Chinese. While the surface-level pleasures of the film revolve around wondering who in the film is an actual person and who is an actor working for CRS, the foundations of it lie in exposing society’s deep inequality.

The detail that hit the hardest on my last watch was the suit Van Orton wears during a sequence toward the end of the film set in Mexico. A suit you don’t truly see until a shot where he enters a truck stop diner, Johnie’s Coffee Shop, and has to beg for a ride back to San Francisco. The scene begins with Van Orton inexplicably waking up in a mausoleum in Mexico, but in the scene prior to it he looks as he always does, comfortably coiffed, here in a mock turtleneck most likely made of cashmere, a gray sports coat, black slacks, and a very un-Columbo-esque tan trench. His clothes hang perfectly off of him, as is usually the case with those who can afford it.

When he emerges from the crypt, covered in dirt and dust, and explodes into the warm hues below the border he is suddenly wearing a white suit. We see him in an extreme wide shot, with Van Orton’s body blending in at the same scale as the gravestones he is walking through. In this moment, it isn’t his wardrobe that catches your eye—it’s unremarkable from such a distance—but the almost shockingly warm light and the chance to see such a wide swath of space after spending most of the film in cramped interiors and blue-hued darkness. When he grabs a taco from a street vendor on his way to a bus that will take him across the border and back to the U.S., it’s exhilarating, especially in contrast to the too-perfectly plated burger and fries he is served on his birthday earlier in the film.

With his characteristic anamorphic widescreen, Fincher’s characters are often lost in the set design, in the details of space and place that define the worlds these characters inhabit. My above description of the outfit he wears before the Mexico sequence was one that required me to look through the entire scene in order to finally see all the pieces and parts of said outfit. But when Van Orton walks into Johnie’s and everyone turns to stare at him, his body, and therefore his clothes, are on full display. There is nowhere to hide.

I’m reminded of what Abraham Polonsky did in Force of Evil (1948), having the telephone that John Garfield uses made slightly larger than normal to create a subtle, almost untraceable sense of dread in the scenes where Garfield is on the phone. When Van Orton walks into the diner, and you can finally look at him, really look at him, the ill-fitting nature of his suit comes into focus, creating an immediate and similar feeling of discomfort. The dirty white fabric hangs off of him loosely, his hands lost in the arms of the suit and the pants legs gathering at his ankles. He looks small and, in that smallness, there is fear.

The camera slowly pushes in on him as he fumbles with the little money he has—eighteen dollars and seventy-eight cents—awkwardly dropping coins on the floor and having to pick them up. Van Orton is an investment banker, someone who, in his own words, “moves money from one place to another,” and yet in this shot it becomes clear he is someone for whom money is simply an idea. And for the first time, in a film predicated on an outrageously expensive purchase, the game itself, money becomes concrete, a real physical object with tangible value. There’s an invisibility of labor that exists in many wealthy people’s lives. They don’t have any practical knowledge of how or why their lives function, what is required to make them function, and how much that labor costs. Fincher, always attuned to the hows and whys of his characters, effortlessly sums up Van Orton’s obliviousness in one simple gesture of coins falling clumsily to the ground. 

As the camera continues to push in on him, Van Orton asks the diner patrons if his small assembly of cash is enough to get a ride to San Francisco. The diner patrons turn to stare at the strange man—even in his current iteration he isn’t one of them—before turning their backs. The camera finally lands on his bloodied face as he looks forward, hoping someone will change their mind. Despite appearances, Van Orton’s predicament, the game, is of course one that was paid for, and it wasn’t cheap. For him, begging for a ride is simply an extracurricular challenge, something that will possibly build character, while the people he is appealing to don’t have a choice. Their $5.49 steak or pork chop dinners aren’t part of a cinematic game, they’re just a physical stop on the physical job they have to do in order to put food on their family’s table.

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