Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard (screenplay), Stephen King (novel)
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, and Henry Thomas
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Isn't this why we came up here? To spice things up and try and push the boundaries?"
Throughout his illustrious career, Stephen King has conjured up an assortment of horrifying, evil entities; however, it’s fair to say that he, too, has often proven an old cliché to be true: sometimes, the most terrifying thing imaginable is man. Gerald’s Game is a stark reminder of this, one that doesn’t single out mankind so much as it dwells on the horrors of actual men. Specifically, it’s about the searing horrors they inflict upon women and how that trauma can bury itself until one is forced to confront it. You don’t find King’s signature sense of supernatural mythos in Gerald’s Game but rather a stark intersection between perversion and perseverance as a woman faces the demons plaguing her mind since childhood.
The woman in question is Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino), who has arrived at a rural lake house for a weekend retreat with her husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood). Desperate to save their failing marriage, the two have come with the explicit purpose of letting Gerald explore his newfound kink involving power fantasies and roleplay. Jessie is visibly nervous but is willing to go along with it, even when her husband—with a devious glimmer in his eyes—produces a pair of handcuffs. When she can’t go through with it, the two have a moment of reckoning about a marriage doomed to be sunk by unspoken resentment and Gerald’s impotence. Before they can confront it, though, Gerald keels over, leaving Jessie tied to the bed with no recourse: none of the neighbors are likely to be due for days (if not weeks), and her only company is a savage, wild dog that intrudes into the house to feed on her husband’s fresh corpse.
Gerald’s Game isn’t exactly among the tier of King’s work you’d ever expect to be adapted, if only because so much of it relies primarily on internalization. Credit, however, is due to Mike Flanagan for pulling it off with aplomb: he’s taken what is essentially a horrific two-person chamber drama and transplanted it to the screen without losing any sense of its urgency. While the premise initially captures an awful sense of dread because Jessie is in such a helpless situation, it’s fair to wonder just how Flanagan can make it enthralling for the next 90 minutes, especially since King’s novel thrives on so much internal dialogue.
Flanagan’s solution is brilliant in its simplicity, as he just lets King’s novel speak for itself—quite literally. Once Jessie begins to process what is unfolding before her, she experiences a sort of shock that has her hallucinating projections of both her dead husband and her own psyche. What could have easily come off as chintzy and stilted shines in the hands of Guigno and Greenwood, who become warring angels and devils on Jessie’s shoulders. While she intones herself to dig deep within and summon up the resilience and cunning to survive this ordeal, he’s there to gnaw away at all the repressed trauma. Greenwood is vaguely menacing as the actual Gerald, at least for the few brief moments we see him alive: he’s all pent up frustration, and he’s failing miserably to conceal it (nor does he seem to be even the least bit shamed by his wife’s reaction to his awful kink). Jessie’s hallucination of Gerald removes whatever pretense Greenwood brings to the living iteration: here, he’s a positively Satanic figure, giving a physical menace to every negative thought that crosses Jessie’s mind.
Guigno matches Greenwood with what is essentially a dual performance as both the meek, terrified Jessie and her better, more determined half. The latter has been suppressed throughout the years, sort of like an unseen dimension that was never allowed to flourish since Jessie is so meek and demure. Within a few minutes of her introduction, it’s obvious that this is a woman quite unsure of herself, almost as if she doesn’t even know what she expects to find during this odd getaway with her husband. Upon being chained to the bed, she’s forced to summon up courage to counter the horrible memories that her plight has dredged up. It becomes increasingly clear that this physical confinement is just a microcosm of the shackles she’s worn her entire life, and Guigno admirably puts the film on her shoulders, allowing the audience watch her idealized projection merge with her actual self—however horrifying the process may be.
Both physical and emotional scars linger here, as Jessie must plunge into the unpleasant depths of a traumatic childhood encounter with her lecherous father (Henry Thomas in one of the more fucked-up bits of casting in recent memory). Set in the ominous shadow of a solar eclipse, this scene is an unsettling reminder that evil sometimes wears a comforting, familiar face. Sometimes, you don’t need to trawl ethereal fathoms to meet with pure horror, not when it reveals itself during an innocuous family vacation and manipulates an innocent girl into living a childhood haunted by intense fear and shame. Jessie’s story is an unseemly—and unfortunately all too topical—tale of sexual violence and its searing, lingering effects. Her attempts to repress these horrors have only chained her to them, even if she could never express it until that more confident self-projection presents itself.
Of course, King can rarely help himself: even in this dramatic, kinky thriller, he weaves in more overt horror elements, like the vicious dog that eventually turns its black eyes towards Jessie. A boogeyman figure (Carel Struycken) also appears, apparently representing death itself alongside Jessie’s other delusions. His imposing but bizarre presence hints that something even more sinister and horrifying may be afoot (after all, Jessie can’t account for the physical evidence he seemingly leaves behind); in true King fashion, he can’t resist having one horrifying ordeal intersect with another, no matter how messily the two may collide. At first blush, Gerald’s Game probably doesn’t require the epilogue here, especially considering the absolutely revolting and squirm-inducing the climax is when Flanagan orchestrates one of the most disgusting gore outbursts imaginable.
However, leaving on that note wouldn’t be true to the “warts and all” approach he’s taken in adapting King’s novel. For better and for worse, he captures the breadth and width of Gerald’s Game, bringing King’s distinct—and sometimes distinctly awkward—voice right to the screen, right down to the bizarre post-script here. Just as he does throughout most of the film, Flanagan allows King’s words to carry the tale, resulting in an oddly sentimental and on-the-nose finale that clashes a bit with the disturbing, claustrophobic events preceding it. That’s sometimes part of the King experience, however, as the author sometimes has a notorious difficulty with sticking the landing, and Flanagan is willing to indulge that bumpy ride every step of the way.
In doing so, he has crafted one of the finest King adaptations, albeit one that perhaps comes at the expense of a stronger movie overall. It’s not that Flanagan had to completely sidestep King’s notorious, somewhat tacked-on ending, but it’s also not too difficult to imagine him capturing it in a more cinematic fashion. In this case, his fealty to King’s text—which is achieved by a clumsy, extended voiceover epilogue—results in a bit of a stumble down the stretch. It’s hardly one that proves to be disastrous, though, since Flanagan otherwise exhibits the steady, assured mastery that’s established him as one of the genre’s most exciting new talents in recent years. With this genuinely unnerving and cringe-inducing adaptation under his belt, there’s no doubting him now, and I can only hope this won’t be the last time he crosses paths with King’s work.
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