Gerald’s Game. Directed by: Mike Flanagan. Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas. Runtime: 1h, 43 min. Released: September 29, 2017.
Spoiler warning! If you want to know as little as possible about the movie, come read this after you watch it. You’ve been politely warned.
“Gerald’s Game” is one of the few Stephen King novels that I don’t love. Some chapters are just super slow so I’m not big on the pacing, but it has good moments.
Me not loving the novel is one reason it’s taken me two years to watch this adaptation. But the bigger reason is I just forgot to add this to my Netflix queue. While the novel is sometimes boring, there’s almost always something interesting going on in the film. Director Mike Flanagan manages to make an unfilmable novel into something great.
Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) go to their summer lake house before the summer season for some kinky sex games in order to spice up their marriage. Gerald handcuffs both Jessie’s hands to the bed frame, pops a couple Viagra and attempts to fulfill an off-putting fantasy… And then he has a heart attack.
Her husband dying on top of her is bad enough, but she’s cuffed to the bed with no way out. These aren’t novelty, porn shop cuffs, either. “These are the real deal. The others can just break if you get going too hard,” informs Gerald.
The setup itself is a horrifying situation. No neighbours for miles and no immediate way out… It’s a claustrophobic feeling, though the bedroom is huge. There are external terrors, too. One’s a starving dog that finds his way into the bedroom. A main one is the Moonlight Man, who I won’t spoil much about other than the name and say his introduction from the shadows is masterful. Director Mike Flanagan does a great job with the imagery like this, like the Moonlight Man and the solid red scenes during the solar eclipse.
Writer Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard use foreshadowing so well in the screenplay and Flanagan’s direction is nothing short of brilliant. It’s brilliant in the tension he creates, as well as smaller moments of setting things up. An example, and only a miniscule spoiler, is when Gerald guides Jessie back into the house before sexcapades after Jessie puts a steak out for the dog (a $200 Kobe rib-eye, from Kobe, Gerald tells us). The dog watches from the comfortable distance of the edge of the woods as they go inside, and Jessie looks back at the open front door for a moment before going into the other hallway. Moments like these are smart. Even smarter is that Flanagan directs it with such ease and any little thing that happens appears to serve a purpose in the film now or it’s set up for later.
I often find one-location survival stories, usually like this, boring because the characters just talk to themselves and work through it – with some flashbacks sprinkled through. The structure works, but it’s not always enthralling, or entertaining, for that matter. That’s why I’m not huge on the novel – it’s just Jessie occasionally talking to herself, cuffed to the bed frame, thinking through the spot she’s in. It’s very internal and not always interesting. It also doesn’t come across as cinematic in the novel.
In the film, however, Flanagan and Howard make it feel completely unique and it gives a new meaning to talking to yourself. Gerald stays in the film because Jessie creates an Imagined Gerald that talks to her throughout. It’s a clever way to keep the great Bruce Greenwood involved, too. It does wonders for the pacing and adds depth to the characters. We don’t know a lot about the couple before they step into the bedroom because that all happens a little before the heart attack and through the exchanges with Imagined Gerald.
It appears to be the dynamic of their marriage in these exchanges. His belittling is like the self-doubt in her mind. It’s a fascinating dynamic because of that and lends itself to the themes of secrets and your past in the film, and just not knowing who you’re marrying. And boy, oh boy, does the story have secrets. These are revealed in Jessie’s past during a solar eclipse, featuring a good performance by Chiara Aurelia as a young Jessie and a memorable turn by Henry Thomas (also featured in Flanagan’s Netflix show “The Haunting of Hill House.”) The flashback aspect of the film is really the only story device that’s part of the survival film formula.
When Jessie’s trying to survive, in the present, there’s also another dynamic with a second version of Jessie, a stronger display of herself that helps her stay on track. I don’t mean to chuck out accolades to Carla Gugino last, because she does such a great job of carrying the weight of the film. She does a great job in horror scenes and is just as good in the dramatic ones, and she just sells the character of Jessie Burlingame. Everything she does on-screen you feel, especially when she’s anxious at the start of the sex game because of the handcuffs and his actions.
The horror itself is often creepy. It doesn’t rely on jump scares, which is refreshing, but often comes naturally from tense build-ups. It’s masterful and the expectation and things the film makes you imagine is very, very good. There’s also one scene that makes me insanely uncomfortable, and the film does its job because horror is good when it’s uncomfortable. Even besides the scares, some scenes are disturbing because of the subject matter.
Back to the character dynamic with herself for a second. The dynamic of Jessie, Second Jessie and Imagined Gerald is electric to watch on-screen. It honestly sounds like the set-up for a dumb joke, but a tableau of Jessie sleeping on the bed, Second Jessie and Imagined Gerald on either side of the bed, and the literally dead Gerald at the foot of the bed is one of my favourite shots in recent memory. It’s simple and makes the craziness of the situation settle in. It’s pictured below (from a screenshot I took on Netflix) and how cool is that?