As 2017 gifts us yet another cinematic Stephen King adaptation, Mike Flanagan positions himself on the right side of history with Gerald’s Game. My earlier review of Andy Muschietti’s It crowned the film as the best King adaptation of this very year, and while Pennywise still claims that throne, Flanagan’s psychological tormentor still deserves its own positive buzz-about. Those who’ve read King’s words will enjoy a respectable transition to screen, but Netflix users going in blind are in for a more twisted discovery. Flanagan’s manipulation of reality is told from a perspective that indulges in tragic cabin-fever bewilderment; enough gory surprises to get a bubbly rise amidst one woman’s kinky night gone horribly awry.
Carla Gugino stars as Jessie Burlingame, wife of Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood). Their marriage appears strong on the surface, but it becomes apparent that boredom has set in. Gerald has an idea – one that involves Jessie, handcuffs and their remote lake house. A sleazy night of lovemaking to grant one of Gerald’s sexual fantasies life, except once the fun starts, Gerald unexpectedly dies from a heart attack. Could it have been his erectile medication? Doesn’t matter. Jessie now finds herself handcuffed to a bed frame that she can’t break from, with no help in sight. Time to start thinking about survival.
Given the film’s isolated location, Flanagan’s greatest achievement is sustaining interest through the bleary eyes of a damsel in maddening distress. Aside from Gugino’s performance – we’ll get there later – Flanagan works his main character’s psychosis with a sense of blackened fun. Jessie suffers a mental breakdown almost immediately and starts talking to a fake version of Gerald because it’s the only way to manufacture character interactions. Then a fake version of herself. They talk through her plans out loud so it’s less about one woman trying to grab a cup of water for 90-ish minutes and more about interactive dialogue. The audience unable to decipher if we’re to trust these teasing figments or if skepticism is deserved – and Flanagan loves never answering this question.
Gugino does the heavy lifting as Jessie, from pain-filled writhing to her glazed-over paranoia as days and nights pass without release. A stray dog adds unnecessary stress since the mut intends to snack on Gerald’s corpse – Gugino now forced to protect her dead husband as well – but conversations with Greenwood represent the film’s liveliest spark. A remarkably toned Greenwood who, while still being a chauvinistic asshole, so playfully pushes Gugino as her ghostly guide through disillusion. Gugino gives it all physically – her “escape” scene a point of wince-worthy praise – but she’s even better when talking to Greenwood and, once full crazy sets in, a more independent version of herself. Gerald’s Game is anything but expected, and Gugino accepts punishment with impressive regard.
The one universal point of contention with Flanagan’s vision seems to be his written-letter voiceover finale, the same being addressed in this review. No spoilers, but with the introduction of a character known as the Moonlight Man (in what capacity won’t be addressed), epilogue content drags and lingers. Feelings of fear and terror squandered by brightly-lit locational shots that almost ruin Mr. Moonlight Man. Prosthetics that are ghoulish by night become exposed as something less imposing given normal human scenarios. It’s a sequence that lasts too long and deflates with each passing second; important to the narrative but outlasting necessity.
In totality, Gerald’s Game is a nasty little bedroom tryst that benefits from Mike Flanagan’s deathly direction and the uneasy sting of Gerald’s skeevy rape fantasy (unmentioned darkness awaits those unfamiliar with Stephen King’s original). As one woman clings to survival, her sanity becomes an unraveled question mark. Carla Gugino understands the predicament Jessie finds herself in and delivers a frantic, at-all-costs breakout attempt; physicality battered and emotional abandon throughout. Bruce Greenwood taunts his lover from the grave, “Cujo” gnaws as rotting flesh, Flanagan dodges and twists with a thrilling genre regard – as already stated, King has another adaptation worth praising. Just as much Flanagan’s dream coming true as it is justice being done for a literal literary royalty.
Gerald's Game is a winning Stephen King adaptation that understands how to thrill through dread and mental breakdowns over cheap thrills.