By Jim Ware
1997’s The Game is the second of three collaborations between David Fincher and Howard Shore. The film tells the tale of cynical investment banker Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) who upon receipt of a gift from his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) is drawn into a mysterious ‘game’ perpetuated by the omnipotent Consumer Recreation Services – CRS. This game turns out to be more than it first appears and Nicholas’ world begins to unravel.
Shore’s score is very different to his previous collaboration with Fincher, 1995’s Seven. Gone is the orchestral density and neo-baroque fugal forms to be replaced by slick, sparse and modernistic arrangements. The orchestrations are light and streamlined with very restrained dynamics, resulting in the orchestra rarely rising above mezzo piano unless absolutely necessary. The score forms an integral part of the films aural texture and is almost homogeneous with the meticulous sound design, not drawing undue attention to itself unless necessary for the narrative.
The score opens with a wistful and melancholic piano theme in ‘Happy Birthday Nicholas’. This theme represents Nicholas’ uneasy family history and gives a sense of his isolation and segregation from ‘normal’ society. It is not stated again in full form until the very end of the score, but a number of related piano phrases are used as leitmotifs throughout the score primarily to represent Nicholas and his increasingly fragile mental state.
Material for Consumer Recreation Services is introduced next, but it is not yet fully formed or cohesive. Various elements are thrown into the mix; primarily interplay between violins and low strings and chattering Morse code-like piano lines. All of the elements of the CRS material are presented here but are lacking in cohesion – the purpose of them is not yet clear to either the audience or Nicholas.
‘Harlequin Clown’ and ‘House of Pain’ unravel the piano material from the main title. Thematic material for our protagonist splits in three directions – a decisive three-note ascending motif, a winding and unstable piano line on the verge of collapse and a rhythmic single note staccato motif. Shore is an expert at scoring psychological distress and inner turmoil, putting his skills to good use here. ‘Van Orton Mansion’ takes the turmoil a step further with Nicholas’ material becoming more and more disordered as the CRS material solidifies.
The cold and clinical material for CRS is given an extended reading in the first major set piece, ‘Congratulations On Choosing CRS’. This six-minute piece is the closest the score gets to delivering a fully-fledged action cue, developing the motifs for CRS and Nicholas over driving tremolo string rhythms. It’s a turning point in the score, and all of the material heard up to this point coalesces into a sinister whole.
Nicholas receives another element of thematic material in ‘Illegal Surveillance’ – a slightly queasy horn line with an air of false nobility. At about this point, the material for the antagonists takes a darker turn, as the methods of CRS become all the more forceful, violent and chaotic.
At nearly seven minutes ‘Reckless Endangerment’ is the longest piece on the album. The unstable piano line, helped by the staccato motif, gains a brief semblance of stability but uneasy orchestral and electronic textures remind the listener that CRS is still in control. Eerie strings add an extra element of tension to the increasingly congested soundscape.
‘Attempted Murder’ and the first half of ‘Mausoleum’ represent the darkest material in the score, employing the full arsenal of Shore tension techniques. The remainder of Mausoleum returns to the horn theme for Nicholas and takes on a mournful yet redemptive quality as the score builds toward the finale.
‘Tung Hoy’ reprises the material from ‘Congratulations On Choosing CRS’ in more forceful form. Although beginning in an almost identical fashion, it’s not quite as streamlined or controlled as it once was. A brief reprisal of the driving action material leads to uneasy brass swells and stopped horns under the ‘unstable’ piano theme, presented here in its most deconstructed form. Bowed cymbals, orchestra and textural effects crescendo in a congested mass of sound.
The finale, ‘Pulling Back The Curtain’, opens with a resigned development of Nicholas’ horn theme ornamented with the unstable piano line before returning to the melancholic piano theme from the main title in full form. Warm swells from the orchestra add a sense of finality and uneasy closure. Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ closes the album in somewhat incongruous fashion.
This is a slow burning score and not recommended listening if one requires instant gratification, but give it the necessary concentration and the subtle ingenuities become apparent. The album is out of print but continuing interest in Shore’s back catalogue will hopefully result in a re-release of some kind in the not too distant future.