“Try to call for help…there’s no one for miles.”
The horror stories I tend to enjoy make me empathize with the ill-fated characters on screen instead of making me yell at them for their stupidity. In other words, “What would I do in this situation?” is a much more compelling question than, “Are you a freakin’ idiot?!” We don’t need to get into whether or not I’ve ever found myself handcuffed to a bed. But suffice it to say that Gerald’s Game — Netflix’s brutal and thrillingly taxing adaptation of Stephen King’s 1992 novel — kept me absolutely riveted from start to finish.
“I bet you think your husband will be back any minute.”
Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) head to a picturesque and remote lake house for a romantic weekend. It doesn’t take long for us to realize the couple’s marriage is severely strained, and this getaway is a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. Gerald believes the way to accomplish this is by jump starting his sex life with Jessie, and his version of adding spice to the bedroom involves handcuffs and a rape fantasy. Jessie responds poorly to Gerald’s game, which involves handcuffing her to the bed frame. But things take a truly disastrous turn when Gerald suffers a heart attack, leaving Jessie handcuffed to the bed.
“Well I’m pretty sure you just lost your mind.”
I know that sounds like a major spoiler, but it’s actually the catalyst for what this story is really about. Sure, Gerald’s Game is, at its core, a clever inversion of the typical survival horror flick; instead of a foreboding forest or some dank basement, Jessie fights to stay alive…while lying in a plush bed. Still, the thing that elevates this film is its examination of a fragile and fractured psyche. The movie occasionally flashes back to a fateful day from Jessie’s childhood involving her dad (Henry Thomas), an eclipse, and an act that left her (metaphorically) shackled as an adult. As Jessie’s body and mind become more fatigued, she starts to hear familiar voices in her head. Will the voices encouraging her to fight for life win out over the ones urging her to accept death?
Director Mike Flanagan had a modest hit with 2013’s Oculus, but really impressed me with 2016’s Hush, which was about a home invader terrorizing a deaf woman. Flanagan also co-wrote the script for Gerald’s Game, which hits some of the same handicapped woman-in-peril beats as Hush. The filmmaker does an especially swift and effective job of introducing the story’s key players (they’re not all necessarily human) and establishing Jessie’s surroundings. In addition to getting our gears turning as to how Jessie might reach the glass of water directly above her head or how her undergarment tag could possibly prove useful, the camera lingers on the couple’s front door, which was left wide open. As a result, we can’t be totally sure that the terrifying presence lingering in the darkest corner of Jessie’s bedroom (Carel Struycken’s “Moonlight Man”) is a figment of her imagination.
The movie version of Gerald’s Game is leaner and meaner than King’s novel. (Actually, I take back the “meaner” part, considering how brutal King gets in print.) One of the most notable changes with this adaptation is the way it streamlines the voices taking up residence in Jessie’s head. Flanagan — who also edited the movie — deserves credit for keeping these sequences visually dynamic, but none of this works without Gugino’s excellent performance.
This is an overdue star turn for the actress, who regularly gets to be mentally brittle and fierce in the same scene. She’s matched wonderfully by Greenwood; if we’re talking lean and mean, the actor spends 90% of his screen time in his underwear and even more time gleefully antagonizing his co-star. I really don’t want to give too much away regarding Jessie’s escape attempts. I’ll just say that, even though I’m not a squeamish person when it comes to horror movies, there’s a sequence towards the end of Gerald’s Game that made me recoil and repeatedly look away in disgust.
It’s an indelible image in what has already been a strong year for horror/thrillers. I mean, the biggest current movie phenomenon happens to be another Stephen King adaptation. Gerald’s Game stumbles a bit during its hokey coda, but stands right alongside those big-screen hits. (And surpasses them, in some instances.) I definitely recommend you hit “play” on this Game.