Before Neflix utilised Mike Flannigan’s talents for their Haunting Of Hill House series and before he wrangled Stephen King for the big screen with Doctor Sleep, there was Gerald’s Game.
The trifecta of King, Flannagan and the monolithic streaming service united to give us one of the prolific author’s tougher novels, a ticking clock thriller about a single character trapped in one location and left to twist alone with their rapidly darkening thoughts that make the bed bound Misery look as spacious and roomy as Disneyland.
Jessie and her husband Gerald have just arrived at their isolated lake house in Alabama for some much needed R&R and to spice up their moribund love life. Gerald is eager to try some kinky role playing and handcuffs his wife to the bed posts after popping some viagra, but after his fantasy proves to be too much for his wife to handle she balks at his advances and demands, not unreasonably, to be released. However, during this intense bout of kink shaming, Gerald pulls the extreme social faux par of having a massive Sean Coronary and dropping dead before releasing the hapless Jessie.
Trapped, cuffed to an unmoving four poster bed, Jessie starts to panic mentally and her racing mind starts to convert her inner monologue into bickering visions of both her husband and herself who give voice to her increasing inner demons. With no one for miles to help, both her phone and a glass of water just out of reach and a local stray dog sniffling at the door, things can’t possibly get any worse as thirst firmly sets in but what about that towering apparition in the corner? The one with the bag full of bones? He also has to be one of Jessie’s hallucinations, hasn’t he?
Long thought unfilmable, Gerald’s Game is that rare Netflix movie that refreshingly isn’t yet another of their seemingly endless line of middle of the road genre outings, but is instead a gripping incident filled thriller that brings out the best in all involved.
Firstly, Flanagan himself who directs and co-writes manages to find all manner of tricksy ways to keep such a locked down location visually and dramatically interesting. As the story is originally written, the vast majority of the character stuff is unsurprisingly told in first person in the form of inner monologue and panicked muttering which led to the widespread feel that Gerald’s Game would be utterly unfilmable and yet the director uses Jessie’s traumatised state to conjure imaginary versions of a sneering deceased Gerald and a version of herself to alternately mock and inspire the trapped housewife to try to stay alive. But in an impressive touch both these avatars to Jessie doubts and self loathing are idealised versions of herself and her husband – Gerald, due to his insistence of continuing his fetish even after Jessie plainly tells him to stop, is now played as a more sinister version of the frustrated man we witnessed when he was alive as her trust in her former husband has now been abused whereas her double is calmer and more assured than the meeker version than she actually is.
This brings us to the other two reasons the film works so well, the two leads.
Bruce Greenwood as Gerald brings a nice, subtle (and worryingly relatable) sense of charisma to his particular brand of toxic masculinity born out of sexual frustration but it’s Carla Gugino, erupting from decades of character based supporting roles, who carries the film with a frankly stunning performance. Raw in every sense of the word (you can’t be handcuffed to a bed for two days without looking impressively like shit) Gugino’s performance is tormented, heartbreaking and devastatingly impressive as Jessie is dragged through her own traumatised psyche by her ordeal, dredging up childhood experiences she’s been pushing deeo down for her entire adulthood.
Aside from the towering performances, the film has a good grasp on logic where seemingly insignificant moments balloon into major problems. For example; Jessie not closing the front door properly and feeding a stray dog meat when they first arrive becomes a real problem when the scraggly mutt comes into the bedroom to cure it’s rumbly tummy by chowing down on Gerald’s face like a buffet with eyeballs.
While maybe a bit more thoughtful than some people may be expecting, rest assured that when the film gets to the showstopping moment when Jessie makes her move, the film lives up to the book with a truly nauseating moment of self preservation and with 2019’s Doctor Sleep, Flanagan may have established himself as at least the second most successful adapter of King’s work (Frank Darabont being number one – sorry Mick Garris) with hidden Easter eggs that not only includes the novel’s reference to King’s other eclipse heavy novel, Dolores Claiborne, but also manages to sneak in a reference to King’s mega literary epic The Dark Tower.
While maybe not a timeless classic, Gerald’s Game is intelligent, ballsy, high level King with a stonking lead performance and a resourceful script that proves that this us a game you really should play.