Netflix’s adaptation of one of Stephen King’s lesser known works is surprisingly layered, if at times overlong. It eclipses its own trappings, a horror film set almost entirely in one location that manages to tell a profound and empowering tale about a woman incapable of shedding the passive persona she adopted at the age of twelve. Her father made an unforgettable impression on her, subsequently shaping every relationship she’s had with men since. It’s here, during two days of terror, where she learns to take control of her own life.
This is her internal battle. But the external battle, the one we see from almost the very beginning, is her very distressing circumstance, albeit one that could easily have appeared mundane under a different director and writer. As we learn, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie (Carla Gugino) haven’t exactly got the the best sex life and to try and spice things up they’ve taken a trip complete with expensive steak, Viagra, and handcuffs. A series of unsettling interactions only work to set the tone for the story ahead and it overcomes that nagging belief that the film would meander given its rather minimalistic narrative.
Director Mike Flanagan highlights very briefly a handful of objects that in a different kind of film might be considered clues to a mystery. Instead, they’re opportunities small in size but enormous in stature. Because once Jessie has the handcuffs on, and once she’s stuck there, she needs to seriously consider her surroundings if she’s to have any chance of getting out of her restraints and out of that house. But before that, we’re spectators to a deeply uncomfortable sequence in which her husband begins to play out a fantasy she didn’t know he had, which is only the tip of the iceberg as far as her trauma is concerned. It sets the stage for an internal psychological battle that plays out concurrently with Jessie’s very real physical one.
Carla Gugino plays Jessie magnificently. In such a restrictive role, she manages to bring both utter terror and fragility in droves and then strength when it’s called for. Her dilemma feels far less immediate until her subconscious – that is, an embodiment of both herself and a post-mortem Gerald, indicating that she’s now losing it after seven hours or so – spells out how quickly it will take for the human body to shut down and the mind to falter. Of course, to add to the immediacy of the situation, there’s also a terribly hungry dog and a man that may or may not be real, going under the moniker of Death, hanging around the property. Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of signature Stephen King-styled terror. It’s a tense, at times panic-inducing tale.
Flanagan handles each of his characters with plenty of deft nuance. Jessie is a character harboring plenty of pain, a pain that is revealed steadily throughout the film’s runtime. The director had been vocal in his love for and desire to adapt the King novel, so much so that he would carry a copy of the book to studio meetings and never failed to mention it when asked of his dream job. It took a success at Netflix to get his opportunity, given that the general consensus prior to this was that the book simply wasn’t adaptable.
The film crumbles in its drawn-out conclusion. An epilogue is added on that feels distant and detached from what’s come before. The focus shifts almost inconceivably onto what was, before that, a rather basic and little-developed subplot. Gugino’s performance fortunately sells all of Jessie’s victories and defeats both large and small. Its themes of physical and emotional abuse are more often than not at the fore, although even this is occasionally swept under the rug. Regardless of his missteps late in the film, Flanagan creates skin-crawling tension through basic use of the claustrophobic, near singular locale that Jessie is confined in, and he successfully manages to emphasize the seclusion of the house and the improbability of survival.
Unpredictable and surprisingly gripping, the flaws in Gerald’s Game are outweighed by its atmosphere and performances. It’s a visceral tale about a woman overcoming deep and long-gestating wounds, and going through hell to do so. It’s a challenging journey in spite of its structurally and narratively head-scratching epilogue, and it’s further proof still that the original work coming out of Netflix is worth keeping an eye on.
Film ’89 Verdict – 7/10
Gerald’s Game is currently available on Netflix (regional variances may apply).