Director: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood
“…spice things up and try and push the boundaries”.
Stephen King can’t be accused of not following his own words, however, movie adaptations of his tend to do the opposite.
Much like John Denver, King is enjoying a fruitful 2017. Unlike Denver, King’s strike-rate hasn’t been 100% (through no fault of his own, to clarify), It was a resounding success, whereas The Dark Tower was a complete toilet monster. Now it falls to a Netflix production of a lesser-known King novel to tip the scales – thankfully, Gerald’s Game is a smart, thrilling and compelling movie.
An adaptation fit for King.
In a desperate effort to spice up, and indeed save, their flailing marriage, Gerald Burlingame (Greenwood) and his wife Jessie (Gugino) head to a picturesque holiday home, complete with beautiful lake views, sprawling woodland and, crucially, total solace and isolation. Always pack your own luggage they say, and Gerald ensures he takes his finest handcuffs and Jessie has her newest lingerie in tow. En route, they nearly run over a stray, mangy dog tucking into a roadside treat but arrive unscathed nonetheless.
Jacking himself up on Viagra, Gerald discards his flaccid issues and gets ready to rock. His idea of kinky is to enact out a situation where his wife, now handcuffed to the bed, is raped – sexy, huh? Jessie’s having none of this, and in the ensuing argument that follows, Gerald suffers a massive heart attack and dies. As he slumps lifelessly off the bed, Jessie is left alone and handcuffed with her harsh thoughts, repressed memories and growing anxiety. As she begins to slowly lose her mind, stark visions of her husband and a freed version of herself act as an angel and devil on her shoulder. Then that stray, mangy dog decides to pay a visit.
Smart, claustrophobic and thrilling, Gerald’s Game is a deep character study decorated with elements of mystery and minor horror. Led by two power performances, the movie succeeds in its use of scale – its set in one room for 90% of the movie – direction and thorough character examination. Carla Gugino delivers a knockout performance as the stricken and tortured Jessie, forced to contemplate where she’s been, where she is and what’s still to come all whilst deteriorating on a bed. Greenwood also is fantastic as the leering, manipulative husband who menaces Jessie even in death, providing his own advice on her predicament. Watching him slither around the bed in his little boxers was a horror in itself.
Flanagan (Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil) and co. do a fine job of adapting the source material, which is chock-full of internal thoughts and conversations by literally bringing Jessie’s thoughts to life (figuratively speaking) and avoiding any extended need for dream-sequences or voiceovers. This also ensures Gugino and Greenwood extra work playing exaggerated versions of themselves. The rabid dog and the Moonlight Man remain too, as does the King-copyrighted barmy ending. By remaining so loyal to the novel, the tonally-offbeat conclusion ends up as the movies weakest element – though its testament to Flanagan’s proximity to the novel that he remained so faithful.
Gerald’s Game prefers its horror to be in its long scenes, atmosphere, its use of music, the ‘what-if’ situations and the authentic-looking panic. There are some moments of blood and gore, but they are few and far between. However, if you’re squeamish, you may want to look away for those few moments. The use of essential flashbacks adds extra layers of ‘horror’ to the story, as Jessie’s damaged childhood is portrayed, including how her perverted father (Henry Thomas) and his wayward mind and desires caused irreparable damage. Layers add to layers and Jessie, and the audience, fall deeper into the mental trauma and fear that is being displayed. The close-up and tight camerawork only helps to accentuate this also.
Shunning the more crazy aspects of King’s work and focusing on a tight, sharply focused story allows Gerald’s Game to succeed. There are many moments that could have become cheesy or poorly-depicted, but the restraint and direction are first-class. There’s a real Hitchcock-ian feel to the proceedings and the situation and that’s down to Mike Flanagan. With two thundering performances, if you can stomach Greenwood writhing in his smalls and an ending that may leave you rolling your eyes, then you’re in for a treat.
This is a game you’ll want to play.
October 1st 2017