The Hero’s Underworld Journey in “The Game”

“The Game,” a 1997 film by David Fincher, creates a world where both the protagonist and the viewer must question the reality of everything he or she sees. The viewer accompanies the hero on a twisted journey, primarily at night, which fulfills all the elements of the katabasis, the psychological descent to the underworld and return to a new life that seems to be a necessary part of the traditional Heroic Quest.

Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Orton, a wealthy businessman and heir of a prominent San Francisco family. His father killed himself by jumping off the roof of the family mansion when he was 48, an event witnessed by the young Nicholas. In the opening sequences we learn that Nicholas lives alone in the huge mansion, is divorced from his wife and estranged from his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn), and is a tyrant at work who relates to his employees with condescension and bitter sarcasm.

On Nicholas’s 48th birthday, Conrad shows up and gives him a gift certificate to “Consumer Recreational Services.” He insists that Nicholas use it, but will not explain what it is for. Nicholas, complaining that “I hate surprises,” goes to the C.R.S. offices where he learns that they design “a game” specifically for each client. “We provide whatever is lacking,” says the salesman. From then on, Nicholas is drawn into an increasingly dark and confusing journey that turns his entire life inside out.

Fincher makes expert use of many of the structural elements and archetypes of the hero’s descent. First comes the Call to Adventure, when Conrad hands Nicholas the card for C.R.S. and says “call them.” The shadowy boss behind C.R.S. appears to Nicholas only twice: once before the game starts, in an airport where he stares at Nicholas for a long time as if measuring him up, and at the end when payment is due. He is Hermes the trickster, god of the crossroads; naturally he would be at home in an airport. Hermes signals that the game has begun by messing things up for Nicholas: he locks Nicholas’s briefcase shut and causes his shirt to be ruined.

Once the game begins, Nicholas is given his instructions by a wise old man, the real-life news commentator Daniel Schorr, who interrupts his nightly broadcast to address Nicholas directly and tell him the rules of the game. The wise old man guides the hero for a while, but always disappears when it’s time for the hero to act. The cabbie who jumps out of Nicholas’s cab just before it plunges into San Francisco Bay is a modern-day Charon who only ferries passengers for a fee. Cerberus, the guardian at the gates of Hades, shows up in the form of the three dogs that force Nicholas to run when he first starts to follow Christine, the young woman who will guide him on the rest of his journey.

Christine is also the maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess who is never far from the hero, for the Goddess represents both fate and the hero’s own feminine qualities that he needs to integrate. His housekeeper Ilsa, who feeds him comfort food on the elegant Orton family china and tells him stories of his own past, fills the wise crone role, while his ex-wife Elizabeth, now pregnant with child by her new husband, is the Mother aspect.

Divestiture is an important part of any ritual, as the participant is stripped of his or her former identity. Nicholas is systematically divested of clothing throughout the movie. First he has to take off the expensive shirt ruined in the airport by the leaking C.R.S. pen, and then the shirt Christine spills wine on. When he first starts to follow Christine, Cerberus removes one of his expensive Italian shoes. For the first half of the movie, Nicholas is always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie. But when he changes after his fluvian descent in the cab, he puts on a turtleneck and casual jacket. When he wakes up in Mexico, he is wearing a filthy, ill-fitting suit that is clearly not his own. From then through the end of the movie he wears ordinary working-class garb.

At the nadir of the hero journey, Nicholas awakes inside a coffin in a tomb, the temenos where revelation occurs. This is the point where the meaningful change in consciousness occurs, where one dies to the old way of being and awakes to a new life. But then one must make the hazardous return from the land of the dead. Nicholas breaks out of the tomb to find himself in a modern vision of hell: a graveyard where fires burn and black smoke fills the air. He crosses a wasteland of junkyards and ghettoes as he struggles to find his way back to the land of the living.

Throughout most of the movie, Nicholas’s face is shadowed. He is often backlit, which evokes the idea of Plato’s cave in which the light comes from behind the people so that all they see are shadows—including their own shadows. Nicholas, for all his wealth and power, lives a life in the shadows, populated by the shadows of his own past, particularly his father’s death. But once Nicholas makes it out of the wasteland and sits on a bench on a busy street in the unnamed town in Mexico where he finds himself, the light shines full on his face for the first time. And it is not the face of the privileged corporate executive any more, but the face of the man who has seen hell and his own soul (perhaps the same thing?).

            Many scenes show us Nicholas framed by doorways or windows. Film is the perfect medium for what Evans Lansing Smith calls “a visual vocabulary of passageways to the underworld” that includes doors and windows. The visual vocabulary of “The Game” tells us that Nicholas is a man on the threshold of a major life change. The repeated use of this vocabulary also establishes a consonance of imagery that helps tie the different scenes of the film together. As Michael Conforti puts it, the deliberate repetition of archetypal images in a film “takes all the disparate threads and parts and combines them into a richly textured, coherent tapestry.” Although the person watching may not always know, consciously, what is happening during the course of the movie, the visual vocabulary helps to orient the viewer.

            The film also pays careful attention to color. Nicholas’s home is almost entirely without color; it is all blacks, whites, and neutral tones of grey and brown, until Hermes’ merry pranksters break in and paint the walls with day-glow colors. His office and club are furnished in rich browns and dull yellows that evoke conservative values. Yet whenever Christine or Elizabeth is around, the color of passion shows up—in the cherry-red bra Christine flashes or the neon sign beyond her on the street, or Elizabeth’s rich burgundy brocade maternity dress. Ilsa, Christine, and Elizabeth often have flowers next to them in the shot. Christine’s and Elizabeth’s are yellow or red, but Ilsa’s flowers are white, as befits the crone aspect of the Goddess. The women are also often posed next to a lamp, for they hold the light for the hero on his night-time journey.

After Nicholas makes it back to San Francisco, it is Elizabeth that he goes to for help. Their reunion occurs in a sunlit café; there are no shadows in this relationship any more. This is the Meeting with the Goddess where the hero must humble himself before the feminine and acknowledge his need for her. Elizabeth gives Nicholas boons (money and the keys to her car). Humbled, he says to her “You are the only person I can trust. I have been . . . thinking . . . the last couple of days.” The pause around the word lets us know that “thinking” is a huge understatement. Nicholas has finally looked at his life and seen it as it is, including what went wrong in his marriage. Smith observes that “revelation of the mysteries of marriage [is] disguised right in the center of the hero journey” And as every hero must do, Nicholas now atones for his past sins. He tells Elizabeth “I understand why you left me,” takes her hand, apologizes for “not being there” for her, and asks her forgiveness. She grants it with a kiss.

            Yet Nicholas still has a ghost to lay to rest. He is haunted by his father’s suicide, a memory he continually relives so that part of his soul remains stuck in the past. Smith writes that “a kind of ego death or personal sacrifice is prerequisite to the revelation and recovery of soul.” For Nicholas to recover the part of his soul that he lost when he watched his father die, he must experience a similar death. But his fall from the rooftop is actually an apotheosis, an upward fall into the light. He falls through the dome that represents heaven as part of his rebirth.

At the end, Nicholas has learned many lessons. He has recovered his soul and integrated his feminine aspects. He knows who he is, what he is capable of, and how to relate to others in a heartfelt way. But he also knows that everything is a game and nothing may be what it seems to be. When Christine invites him to go with her on another journey, he smiles because he no longer needs to feel in control or to hang on to the past. He no longer fears the chimeræ of his own imagination. Whatever life may be about to hand out to him, whatever it will mean to accompany Christine, he can handle it. He can play this game of life.

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