The year of Stephen King adaptations rages on with the release of Gerald's Game, based off his 1992 novel of the same name. King adaptations can certainly be a mixed bag. This year's The Dark Tower was a tragic underachievement, yet the creepy clown tale, It, turned out to be a tremendously entertaining thrill ride. So where does Gerald's Game fall in the pecking order?
Written and directed by Mike Flannigan (Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil), Gerald's Game tells the story of Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), a married couple who have drifted apart and decide to spend a weekend away at a remote cabin to try to rekindle their dying relationship.
The film wastes no time with small talk, as Jessie quickly dons a sexy blue nightgown and Gerald proceeds to handcuff her to the bedposts. Because nothing says let's reconnect like awkward, kinky shenanigans in the bedroom. The whole scene is somewhat disturbing, mostly due to Jessie's clear uneasiness at being chained up. The fact that Gerald has a hard time reading the room doesn't help. When the scene takes a turn from harmless role-playing to Gerald's exploitative rape fantasy, Jessie demands for the game to stop, frustrating Gerald to the point he has a heart attack, falling off the bed with a sickening thud. Jessie is left shackled and alone, save for a starving stray dog who has wandered into the house, with no other souls within shouting distance to save her.
Flannigan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari have done a fantastic job at creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia that accentuates the remoteness of Jessie's situation. As day shifts to night, the shadows within the room grow longer and darker, playing tricks on the beleaguered Jessie, and on the audience seeing much of it through her vantage point.
As the hours tick away, Jessie starts to lose focus on her reality; hunger and dehydration whittling away at her consciousness, hallucinogenic visions of her dead husband and of a more coherent version of herself bantering back and forth like a psychotic play on the classic angel versus devil on the shoulder schtick.
As Jessie struggles with her sanity in the real world, she is forced to battle some subconscious demons from the past that bubble up. An incident with her father that occurred when she was twelve has left Jessie with some deep emotional wounds, and Flannigan cleverly utilizes flashbacks to recreate disturbing moments from the past that clearly shape her as a person today. Jessie is no doubt burdened by invisible chains from those past events as well as the handcuffs that hold her to the bed.
Gerald's Game succeeds in part to the stellar performances of Gugino and Greenwood. Gugino is asked to carry a lot of emotional weight, dealing with the uneasiness of the sexual role-play, to the sudden death of her husband, to her disintegrating grip on reality. She is a woman who is simultaneously tortured by her past and her present, and Gugino is spot on believable with every gasping breath and ugly cry.
Greenwood is diabolical, early on as a sexual predator, and later on as a vision in Jessie's mind that gleefully antagonizes her. He enjoys reminding her that death is closing in, and a figure that lurks in the shadows, known as the Moonlight Man, will be looking to collect her bones as souvenirs. The actual Moonlight Man that haunts Jessie adds a nice creepy element; his eyes glowing from the darkness in the corner.
It should also be noted that during the flashbacks of young Jessie (Chiara Aurelia) and her father, Tom (Henry Thomas), both actors are delivering on an inconceivably demanding portrait of an inappropriate relationship between father and daughter. Tom's manipulation of his daughter is as sickening as her reaction to it is heartbreaking.
This biggest misstep of Gerald's Game is its ending. As someone who is not familiar with the book, I can't comment on how it compares, but regardless, none of it made much sense. Jessie's supposed moments of closure from her past is presented in a way that doesn't feel logical to what we've seen take place. King has often been accused of not sticking the landings in his novels, and if this ending is indicative of how the book ended, that seems like a valid critique.
For the majority of its runtime, Gerald's Game succeeds as a legitimate psychological thriller, with just enough horror elements thrown in to elevate the creep factor. There is also a cringeworthy scene that involves a broken glass, a wrist, and a whole lot of blood that is apt to leave even the biggest gore hounds squirming in their seats. There are some uncomfortable relationship themes at the root of the film that are worth exploring, and with the current scandals rocking Hollywood, the subtext of this film seems timely and necessary. This is a film worthy of your attention.
Gerald's Game is currently streaming on Netflix.
4 out of 5