Another day, another Stephen King adaptation. This year has turned out to be a marathon of King’s stories projected on both big and small screens, and Gerald’s Game I think is one of the best. Jessie (Carla Gugino) and her husband, the titular Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), venture to a secluded lake house in an effort to spice up their relationship. When Gerald has a heart attack after handcuffing his wife to the bedposts, Jessie is left to survive off only her wits and perseverance. Every aspect of the film delivers more than I had expected, and Mike Flanagan (director, editor, co-writer) further solidifies himself as one of the best horror auteurs in the business right now.
Gerald’s Game is absolutely dependent upon Gugino’s performance to carry the film and maintain the viewer’s interest. She takes that responsibility in stride, building a deeply developed character that we actually care about. Jessie’s struggle is portrayed both psychologically and physically and the viewer really experiences the pain right alongside her. From the beginning, Gerald is portrayed as kind of a macho, controlling asshole who’s really only putting forth effort into their relationship to re-validate his own failing sexuality. In the moments before his death, he basically all but rapes his wife and proceeds to blame her for their failed relationship. Jessie, once realizing her predicament, quickly recedes into her own psyche, and begins interacting with her mind’s projection of a living Gerald, as well as a more willful version of herself. These two act, respectively, as the devil and angel on Jessie’s shoulders. The former puts her down in an effort to break her and convince her to give in, and the latter encourages her and helps her think her way out.
Jessie’s character is a complex one, whose depth is slowly unraveled throughout the film. She has to confront all of her demons, both mentally and physically, as well as past and present, in order to find the strength to survive and the smarts to eventually escape. This begins with her acceptance of the fact that her husband was both unfaithful as well as consistently psychologically abusive. She comes to these realizations through talking to her angel/devil visions, which slowly start to open her mind. Further along, she must actually confess to herself the repressed memory of her father’s sexual abuse, after which she finds the strength to push herself past her preconceived limits.
The way that Flanagan treats the subject matter of Jessie’s sexual abuse, especially by her own father, I found admirable and I thought gave the film its heart. This isn’t an event that’s merely talked about or tossed in as cheap character development. Instead, Jessie has to revisit the pier where it took place. She relives it all and we’re there with her. The scene is done in a way that’s sensitive, in that it’s not using the concept of sexual abuse as a point of horror, but at the same time truthfully traumatic. The abuse itself is only shown briefly, and instead the deepest discomfort comes from Jessie’s father’s psychological torture in the aftermath, which causes her to ultimately blame and hate herself for it. This scene is, though upsetting, the most visually stunning of the film. That’s not to say that everything that takes place within the bedroom is not, because it is also shot beautifully by Flanagan’s consistent collaborator, cinematographer Michael Fimognari. But the pier flashback is especially incredible in the symbolic use of a solar eclipse to represent the happiness and light temporarily going out of Jessie’s life in the wake of the life-altering moment of her father’s abuse. The pier becomes gradually bathed in a deep, overpowering red light as the sun becomes completely eclipsed, and Jessie’s fear reaches its peak.
Flanagan is known for directing other horror films such as Oculus, Hush, and Ouija: Origin of Evil, and was the editor on all of these films as well. But I think his control over editing was especially necessary to Gerald’s Game, due to the film’s setting and the nature of the story. He manages to keep it interesting despite the captive protagonist, while not forfeiting the restlessness and claustrophobia imposed by her predicament. This seems like a tough feat to accomplish, but Flanagan effortlessly weaves in the traumatic flashbacks, mental imagery, and some fever dream scares of which we question the reality. And speaking of scares, there were certain moments in which I found my entire body tensing up in fear, and there was nary a jump scare to be found. Flanagan manages to incorporate elements of body horror, as well as fear of the unknown, and even a mental manifestation of Death. So, you know, it keeps the fear interesting.
If you’re looking for something new and spooky to put you in the Halloween spirit, Gerald’s your guy. You don’t even need to leave your bed to watch it. And although you may be thinking, “If this whole thing takes place in one room, I’m gonna lose my marbles,” it’s only about an hour and 40 minutes, and it moves quickly. The acting’s fantastic, the story is interesting, and the ending is satisfying. All with a couple of good scares along the way.