Gerald’s Game smoothly branches out of Jessie’s life-preserving struggle, entering her tormented, fractured psyche for a shocking story.
2017 is seeing a renaissance of adaptations from Stephen King’s stories. Sometimes it’s tempting to condemn the topics raised by these movies or TV shows shop-worn because modernity has transferred them into our shared consciousness via popularized ideas. However, the books retain their visceral powers of literary sensibility, open to be vivified by the right filmmakers. We experienced the abject failure of The Dark Tower, but one month later, IT proved my point. The Mist was canceled after one season, but the underseen gem Mr. Mercedes has its fanbase. Gerald’s Game is the next film adaption, and the names attached to it promise an adequate horror flick.
Gerald’s Game follows Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) and her much older husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), whose “game” frames our female lead into her story, as the couple travels to their lake house for a weekend getaway. The sensual melody of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” repeats from scene to scene, setting the mood for what comes next. For reasons that unfurl later, the Burlingames’ marriage comes to a sour point when kinky sex is the only means to kick back desire and vigor into the sheet. In Gerald’s distasteful roleplaying game, things move fast from jocular to awkward, and before Jessie can keep up, her husband drops dead on her.
Wait, I forgot to mention that Jessie is handcuffed to the bedframes, thus exposed and vulnerable in spread-eagle. Neither the house’s caretakers nor their friends will visit within the next week, or even next month, leaving her cut off from help. This stake of survival lends its dramatic heft to Jessie’s situation as she lies in almost helplessness, counting down to her death—due to either the lack of water and food, a flesh-eating stray dog, or an evasive figure mentioned as The Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken from The Addams Family movies).
For a single-set film similar to Saw and Buried, this setting is less grotesque and claustrophobic, but the talented director Mike Flanagan fills the bedroom space with varieties of items, hallucinations, and perils. Spatial clarity around the centerpiece, Jessie’s bed, sets up important objects. We see the key to the handcuffs and Gerald’s cell phone, a wall shelf over Jessie’s head, windows on the right and a door on the far left, and even one trivial item viewers we forget the exact way we throw them away in real life.
This film grounds us into realism as Jessie faces certain physical challenges firsthand, then Flanagan lures us in for more narrative layers as the transition from the real and the unreal is seamless. Before that, Gugino keeps viewers on edge with her convincingly unnerved performance. Jessie is mortified at Gerald’s forceful behaviors, which is borderline on rape, and baffled at his sudden death, but the terror of being alone is a thousand times more distressing. It’s difficult to own such a set piece, but Gugino gives her all to the role, from her control of gestures as Jessie flinches in unease to her quivering lips and teary eyes. A lot of her survival acts require patience and attention to detail, and Gugino sells every second of them.
Two manifestations of Jessie’s mind, previously scarred and now waning, come in front of her with a surprising dose of humor and drama. Flanagan lets these two arise from Jessie’s subconsciousness in the forms of herself and a healthy Gerald, instead of using voiceover or inner monologue. This gives Gugino and Greenwood a chance to display more amazing chops. While Jessie argues with and talks down to herself in long scenes, the imagined Gerald toys with her emotions by bringing up anecdotes about whether Gerald is a disgusting misogynist. The unfortunate man seems nice and understanding, though his fleeting first impression only prepares us for many surprises after he dies. Greenwood keeps a face of deceptive affability while the sexually boisterous husband is alive, then the hallucination’s comical belligerence provides more narrative elements into the growing tension.
Jessie has “a heart of gold,” as Gerald compliments her; she even leaves an expensive treat for the dog that eventually becomes a threat to her. She gives the impressions of an old-fashioned woman susceptible to male dominance, but the truth is never that simple. Viewers are taken along a detour into her past and explore the main character through memory fragments from her formative years. While handling a serious story of childhood trauma, Flanagan remembers to reinforce his setups for them to pay off in key moments. From Occulus to Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil, Flanagan proves he knows his way around elaborate jumpscares, especially the time taken to build up the atmosphere and how each scare impacts the storyline.
Sex play brings out the thematic expressions of gender dynamic while Gerald’s Game smoothly branches out of Jessie’s life-preserving struggle, entering her tormented, fractured psyche for a shocking story. Flanagan’s artistry shines more in a haunting image of a solar eclipse surrounded by the ominous red sky as viewers meet the teenage Jessie (Chiara Aurelia gives a powerful performance) and her parents (Flanagan’s wife, Kate Siegel, and Henry Thomas, the boy from ET). For now, it’s best to know little about Jessie’s past because it holds the film’s suspense and vitality.
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