It is said the difference between comedy and tragedy is time. This might be true, but the difference between a comedic, or even farcical, situation and unrelenting psychological dread is entirely in the temperament of the filmmakers and actors. And as luck would have it, Gerald’s Game has a marvelous set of both who will do everything in their power to grind your nerves into putty.
As the third major Stephen King adaptation in only a few months, Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game is an intensely intimate nightmare—and perhaps the most effectively haunting of the three films. To be sure, there is (arguably) nothing supernatural about Gerald’s Game, nor anything particularly “high-concept,” at least within the industry definition of that term. No major special effects explode here, nor are there alternate dimensions; there isn’t even a creepy dancing clown. In fact, the most daring thing about the picture is its exact smallness. For here is a movie that’s focused essentially on a woman who can’t pull herself out of bed.
Hardly the stuff of easy adaptation, the actual implications of why this woman has been stuck in one place, both in a horrifying moment of short-term survival and in a more abstract overview of her whole life, would likely make this tale of middle-aged despair “unfilmmable” to any number of modern studios. But as a Netflix original film, Flanagan has the support and resources to spend a whole film inside a bedroom… and explore the darkest corners therein.
Gerald’s Game begins peacefully enough. Sam Cooke’s smooth vocals croon “Bring It On Home to Me” as a picturesque, upper middle class couple pack for what appears to be a blissful weekend getaway in the country. Living in New Orleans, Jessie (Carla Gugino) and her lawyer husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) appear to have it all, including a remote and romantic cottage, probably out by a lake somewhere.
The lake itself cannot be confirmed, because Gerald has one thing on his mind: spicing up their sex life. While Jessie packs dresses, Gerald packs a playful set of handcuffs that he cannot wait to try out in the bedroom. Inside of an hour upon their arrival, Gerald initiates what appears to be the couple’s first attempt at roleplaying, one that causes Jessie more than a hint of anxiety. Is this really the only way her older husband can find excitement now? But she doesn’t know the half of it. After his wife cuts his fun short, Gerald suffers a massive heart attack and drops dead right on the spot. Sprawled out on the floor and bleeding, Jessie’s terror at seeing her husband collapse is quickly supplanted by an even more primal fear: escape.
With each hand chained to an oak bedpost, there is no way for her to even reach the glass of water on the shelf above her head—never mind sit up straight. But she’ll have to do more than that as the hours (and days) threaten to pass by, and a stray dog attracted to blood comes calling, along with Jessie’s most hidden thoughts. Harassed by visions of herself, her recently deceased husband, and of her estranged father from childhood, Jessie’s mind will perform an entire courtroom drama as she risks withering away on the bed until the next man in her life, Death, finally arrives. And yes, he is a character too—wearing black.
Having never read Gerald’s Game myself, it is easy to imagine that adapting a novel that mixes light bondage with severe psychosexual childhood trauma was not an enviable task for Flanagan and his co-screenwriter Jeff Howard. The novel is apparently even more esoteric, as the voices in Jessie’s head take on unknowable, abstract shapes.
Hence it’s a canny decision to have Jessie re-litigate her suddenly ended marriage with these flights of fancy. Curiously her husband takes the role of essentially the devil on her shoulder, feeding into her worst impulses and self-doubts, pushing her closer to oblivion. While viewers will spend a relatively short amount of time with a breathing Gerald, one gets a strong understanding of the man from how Jessie perceives him, even while cringing at what a stray dog is doing to his body beneath the bed.
Gugino and Greenwood, two strong character actors who are usually cast aside to the background in higher budgeted movies (particularly as they’ve become thespians of a certain age) absolutely relish these roles, creating an entirely inhabited married life even though one of them is technically dead. The compromises, unspoken doubts, and medicinal peculiarities of a long marriage in which the years have passed—and the man is the older of the two—are slowly and gruelingly laid bare. Particularly, as evidenced by the waking dreams of Jessie’s childhood, that she traded one horrible relationship with an older man for merely a bland one with another.
Indeed, despite being a much more elemental narrative than the recent box office-dominating It adaptation, both stories have obvious overlaps, as women (at least also in the It novel) must grapple with their insidious childhood demons masquerading as paternity. These sequences in Gerald’s Game are also greatly aided by a performance from the young Chiara Aurelia in a precocious turn that is painfully authentic.
For audiences who are willing to study with such detail the shadings of an enigmatic portrait, Gerald’s Game is a worthwhile match between a woman, her mental demons, and even perhaps some real ones. For who knows what really watches in the dark of night? Flanagan recently entered the world of franchising with an improved but unnecessary Ouija prequel last year. Gerald’s Game, by contrast, is a movie akin to his best thrillers, including Oculus and Hush, where paranoia creeps under the skin, and reality blurs.
As a Netflix film that is at least in part about marital disappointments, this is far from the flashiest Stephen King adaptation this year. And like so many other King-based stories, it features a denouement that goes on several scenes too long, all the while thematic through-lines are underscored to the point of their own detriment. Yet Gerald’s Game is a brazen thriller filled with narrative audacity and a “locked room” setup almost unheard of from studio chillers. And all things considered, this might just be the one that you find tied to your mind when the lights (or spark) go out.