All of the best moments of Gerald’s Game are its quietest ones.
Sure, there’s screaming. And crying. And the sound of flesh being torn from skin, of a hungry dog dragging a corpse across the cold, hard ground. And yeah, those moments are effective. But none are as chilling as a woman’s own inner dialogue with the representations of some of her most self-destructive tendencies.
Gerald’s Game, out on Netflix just in time for Halloween season, is a Stephen King adaptation, although surely to be one that will receive much less attention than the blockbuster phenomenon of It, which we’ve already written about at length. This is no epic, 1,000-page story that has captured the imagination of a mass audience for decades. Rather, the Gerald’s Game source material is decidedly mundane and tidy, by King’s standards. It’s a novel that feels like it was adapted from a stage play: One location, extremely minimal cast of characters, built for a powerhouse central performance by the female lead. It’s not exactly one of King’s best-received or critically acclaimed works, and unlike It, it’s not a property that any passerby on the street would likely be able to describe, if quizzed.
For a filmmaker, that means a degree of freedom, and director Mike Flanagan makes the most of it. His version of Gerald’s Game trims fat, condenses and slims, stripping away some of the odder quirks of King’s novel to get at the heart of themes underneath. The result is a tense, effective thriller that goes out of its way to highlight two strong actors in an unfettered celebration of their craft…especially in those quiet moments.
This is nothing new for Flanagan, whose recent output in the horror genre has been commendable. It’s hard to overlook some of the recurring themes in his work, beginning with 2011’s Absentia and all the way through the wildly imaginative Oculus, Hush (also on Netflix) and Ouija: Origin of Evil. Every one of these films centers around a strong-willed female lead, as does Gerald’s Game. Is this coincidence? Or is the director drawn to stories that reflect the struggle of women to claim independence in their lives by shedding old scars or ghosts, be they literal or figurative?
Either way, it made Flanagan an obvious fit for Gerald’s Game, a story that begins with a husband and wife making a naive attempt at “spicing up” their love life through the use of handcuff restraints. The only problem is that once the cuffs are on, a slightly more sadomasochistic side of “daddy” starts coming to the surface. Also troubling: The old man’s heart isn’t quite what it used to be, especially when stressed by the combination of excitement and Little Blue Pills. It isn’t long before Jessie (Carla Gugino) finds herself trapped on the bed, still handcuffed beneath the rapidly cooling corpse of Gerald (Bruce Greenwood). And that’s when the fun begins.
These aren’t spoilers we’re throwing around willy-nilly: That’s the setup for the actual meat and potatoes of Gerald’s Game, which is primarily built around Jessie’s attempts to escape from her imprisonment as she slowly degrades both physically and mentally. As her hold on sanity loosens, she converses with figures from her life, past and present: shades who represent the often at-odds facets of Jessie’s fractured personality. They’re personified in two main forms: Her doubts, insecurities and self-loathing come to the surface via her imagined conversations with Gerald, while her resourcefulness, independence and will to survive are personified by a feisty, idealized version of Jessie herself. Then there are the x-factors: The feral dog who has found his way into the lakeside cottage and is looking Jessie over with increasingly hungry eyes, and the even more terrifying “Moonlight Man” whom Jessie has begun seeing in the room at night, hunched over her bed like the shadow of death. Is he real? A condition of her rapidly mounting insanity? And perhaps more pressingly, how is Jessie going to get off this damn bed?
Flanagan was wise to condense the central personality conflict into this duality between Jessie and Gerald, bypassing the more absurdist nature of King’s novel, which has Jessie engaging with memories of college friends, past psychiatrists and a puritanical, “goody two shoes” version of herself. If anything, it’s a dynamic that feels truer to the themes of the book—Jessie is both literally and metaphorically imprisoned in her life and marriage by Gerald; does it not make sense that he also represent the part of her personality that allowed her to be complicit in said imprisonment? The part of her that perhaps thought she deserved such treatment?
As Jessie, Carla Gugino is serviceable—and then some. Her initial portrayal of the character seems flighty and one-note, but she later finds depth in the opportunity to literally converse with herself as the gulf between her idealized and real-world selves becomes increasingly pronounced. Her final escape is appropriately harrowing (with one sequence that is genuinely shocking in its gory brutality), but even better is Bruce Greenwood as Gerald, who is truly a revelation here. His initial smirking menace quickly eroded by mortality itself, his subsequent appearances in the mind of Jessie are far more malicious and subtle. The absolute best points in the film are the monologues of this specter, infecting his wife and impeding her progress with the slow, inexorable creep of self-doubt and nihilistic hopelessness. Greenwood, perhaps most prominently remembered as Captain Christopher Pike in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies, is an actor whose wry facial expressions seem to contain hidden multitudes. His suggestion that the “Moonlight Man” Jessie is seeing at night may perhaps be the devil feels like classic misdirection—the devil has been right in front of her this whole time.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t without its flaws and oddities, although most of them aren’t Flanagan’s fault. The story of Gerald’s Game begs to be told in a brisk, tidy way. (If ever a horror/thriller story would be ideal to execute in 80 minutes, it would be this one.) The actual running time is 103 minutes, which is needlessly overstuffed. Much of that is King’s strange ending, faithfully transposed by Flanagan, which ultimately detracts from the focus of Jessie’s story and sends the audience into a bizarre carnival sideshow.
Ultimately, Gerald’s Game is an unassuming, overachieving little thriller that is blessed by two performers capable of handling the lion’s share of the dramatic challenges it presents. Like the thoughtless indifference of a spouse in a collapsing marriage, the film tears at the heart and erodes the will to save oneself until things get so bad, it’s act…or die.
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writers: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas
Release Date: September 29, 2017 on Netflix
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.