Written By: Daniel Kinsley

What makes for an effective cinematic twist?

It’s a broad question, and surely the mileage will vary viewer to viewer. For that reason, it’s generally a fools errand to declare something effective or otherwise; what works for some will almost certainly not work for another.

The twist ending is surely even more divisive. Some films come apart entirely as they reach for a reveal that is too ambitious, while others are carefully crafted so that the ending feels inevitable once it has been revealed. Regardless of the method, the twist ending typically calls for a reevaluation of all that came before.

So, how to answer the question: what makes a twist effective? In this writer’s opinion, there are several factors to consider. This piece will take a look at the way a twist can employ an emotional payoff to pull off a twist.


David Fincher is a filmmaker who knows a little something about the twist narrative. The Game (1997) came at an interesting time in his oeuvre, sandwiched between Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999), two of the auteur’s more commercially successful films. While they are both worthy films, better writers than this one have unpacked those films ad nauseam, and while there is an argument to be made for their inclusion, neither makes so fine a point about the emotional payoff of its ending as The Game.

In his original review of the film, critic James Berardinelli described the thriller as a “refrigerator” film; it was a coin termed by Hitchcock to describe a film that plays like gangbusters during its run-time, but largely falls apart upon closer examination. It is not an unfair accusation to lob at the film, as even Fincher said in hindsight he should not have directed the film because they never figured out the third act.

Having said all that, none of it really matters. The film is consistent in its own logic, and while it is not recognizably the “real” world, what matters most is that the emotional stakes are clearly built and paid off, making any discussion of whether each plot machination holds up to close scrutiny largely irrelevant.


The Game is about an investment banker named Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) a man who is defined by his wealth and the seeming lack of meaning in his life. Nicholas is estranged from his ex-wife and maintains a distant relationship to his black sheep younger brother, Conrad (Sean Penn). The only thing that drives him is his career, but even in this, he appears to take no pleasure.

The most obvious scar that Nicholas carries around, however (without ever acknowledging it aloud) is the way he is haunted by the suicide of his father, an event which occurred when he was a young boy. Throughout the film, clips of old home video is interspersed, revealing snippets of a birthday party, a final memory of childhood before his father took his own life. In the present, Van Orton lives in the same mansion, only it is devoid of all life, drained of any color, and for all its opulence, lacking in any joy.

On the eve of Nicholas’ 48th birthday (the same age his father was when he took his life) Conrad appears and gifts his older brother with an usual present; a voucher for a “game” conducted by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS) with a promise that the game will change his life.

Nicholas reluctantly takes his brother up on the gift and goes to the CRS offices to undergo a number of bizarre and time-consuming physical and psychological exams (conducted by the late great character actor James Rebhorn) only to be told later that it was all for naught: his application was rejected.

The entire engine up until this point seems designed to aggravate Nicholas, a cold, obsessive control-freak. Things begin to take a turn for the bizarre when Nicholas arrives home to see a porcelain clown lying in his driveway, laid out in the same position his father landed in after jumping to his death. He takes the clown inside and begins to tinker with it, and then the newscaster on his TV begins talking to him.

This is his game, and it has now begun.

Small contrivances begin to occur, and while Nicholas is visibly bothered, it adds up to very little at first. Shortly after the game has begun, Conrad returns, in a dizzying paranoid state, raving about how CRS is after him. After he finds a pile of CRS keys in the glove box of Nicholas’ car, Conrad begins to believe that Nicholas is behind the whole plot against him. It is a pivotal scene as the text of the argument quickly shifts gears from CRS to the relationship between the two men, and Conrad’s belief that his brother rejects him, because he had the luxury of being irresponsible after their father’s death. Conrad’s parting words are perhaps the first thing to truly get under Nicholas’ skin to this point, as he wails “nobody asked you to play Dad.”

Soon, things begin to escalate as Nicholas crosses paths with a waitress named Christine (Debra Kara Unger) who appears to have no involvement, yet finds herself caught up in Nicholas’ game. It would rob the film of its many small joys to examine the plot beat by beat, but Fincher wisely keeps his foot on the gas for most of the run-time, revealing almost nothing to the audience that Nicholas does not know. Before the game begins, there is a melancholy pall that lurks over everything in Nicholas’s life; as it begins to spiral out of control, the colors become less muted, the camera moves more quickly as things become less and less certain.

Detractors have argued that the events of the film do not (nay, can not!) add up; but for the truly pedantic, the nature of the game itself determines that they do. The film rarely tips its hand as to who or what is part of the game, and it is entirely possible that there are permutations that simply do not take place, or deviations that are only half-glimpsed, as Nicholas chooses the path that leads him down the one viewed in the film. More importantly, the game is tailored very specifically to Nicholas, and preys on his psychological motivations, his own sense of logic, and significantly, his memories. Fincher has stated that the film is about a loss of control, and that is precisely the point; there is a logic in a hurricane that is unique unto itself. However, while it appears that the intent of the game is to lead Nicholas to madness, the purpose to stripping him of control is to take his pretensions with it.

Toward the end of the film, Nicholas has been stripped of damn near everything. His bank accounts have been emptied, he has been drugged, nearly drowned, and left for dead in Mexico. By the time that he gets his hand on a gun and tracks down Rebhorn’s character as a means of smuggling him into the CRS offices, Nicholas no longer cares about his stolen fortune. There is a tinge of madness in his voice when he declares, “I’m pulling back the curtain. I want to meet the wizard.” He is able to make his way into the CRS offices, where he finds Christine and takes her hostage, ending in a standoff on a skyscraper rooftop. By this time, Nicholas is unhinged, believing he no longer has anything to lose.

The plot turns when Christine realizes that Nicholas is holding a real gun, and insists that everything that happened was a hoax, all a part of his game. Though the door to the roof is locked, there is someone on the other side. Christine desperately explains that it his birthday party, that his loved ones, including Conrad are on the other side of that door. Nicholas is unconvinced, and when the door to the roof bursts open, he fires and shoots his brother, decked out in a crisp white tuxedo, a bottle of champagne in hand.

Despondent, Nicholas turns and leaps from the roof. As he falls, the super 8 home video clips return, briefly lighting upon his brother as a child, and his final hazy memories of his father. It all feels inevitable in a sense, that Nicholas’s choices could have only led here.

Nicholas falls through an enormous window, landing on a giant air-bag. Around him is a black tie event, populated by friends, family, and many of the faces from the game. Paramedics check his vitals and help him up. Conrad appears, alive after all, to wish his big brother a happy birthday. As the many onlookers begin to surround him, all Nicholas can manage is a question.

“What is this?”
“It’s your birthday present.”

Without a performer who could handle the material, the whole thing would fall apart. Douglas truly excels at playing the rich prick, and here he is pitch-perfect as he plays cold and disinterested, which gives way to anger, and finally, at long last catharsis. Both Douglas and Sean Penn sell the hell out of the moment when Nicholas finally understands, breaks into sobs, and falls into his brothers arms.

Nicholas Van Orton is back from the dead, finally able to live again.

The film so effectively sells us on the premise of the game itself with this huge payoff. While the events that Nicholas undergoes happen in a way that leaves little room for thought while it is occurring, those who are busy nitpicking the machinations of the game, or complaining about its lack of realism miss the point entirely. It is the catharsis that ultimately matters, and it is why the ending is so effective. The film masquerades as a thriller, but from the very beginning, the pieces are in place dictating that this is not a game of logic, but emotion.

Early on in the film, when Nicholas asks a stranger who has played the game what it is all about, the man replies: “John, Chapter 9, Verse 25.”

‘Whereas once I was blind, now I can see.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s