Driven by two great performances, Gerald's Game successfully turns King's source material into a disturbing exercise in cinematic horror and suspense.
Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) are a married couple who decide to go on a retreat to a remote lakeside house, in an effort to revitalize their relationship via some alone time... and a kinky sex game that involves Jessie being handcuffed to their bed. What starts out as harmless foreplay goes horribly wrong when Gerald becomes too aggressive for Jessie's tastes - only to then suffer a heart attack that leaves him seemingly dead on the floor and Jessie trapped on the bed, her arms locked in spread-eagle and no apparent way to escape from the room or seek help.
Alone in the house with only Gerald's body and a stray dog that she fed earlier, Jessie struggles in vain to find a way out of her terrifying situation - aware that she has no way to contact the outside world and little-to-no hope of anyone coming to her rescue. As the hours go by and Jessie gradually deteriorates both physically and mentally, she begins to imagine (?) having conversations with not only the specter of her husband, but even (quite literally) herself, about the dark truths behind her marriage. Most troubling of all, however, is the mysterious figure who only visits Jessie at night - a figure that she comes to believe could be Death himself.
In addition to being a film adaptation of pop literary icon Stephen King's 1992 novel of the same name, Gerald's Game is also the latest offering from cult horror/thriller filmmaker Mike Flanagan of Oculus, Hush, and Ouija: Origin of Evil fame. Thanks to his previous directorial efforts, Flanagan now has a reputation for delivering taut and disturbing horror movies that neither rely on cheap scare tactics, nor are lacking when it comes to thematic substance. The prospect of Flanagan adapting one of King's books sounds good on paper, and (thankfully) proves to be just as creatively-rewarding in action. Driven by two great performances, Gerald's Game successfully turns King's source material into a disturbing exercise in cinematic horror and suspense.
Whereas much of King's source material takes place within the mind of its protagonist (as Jessie starts to hallucinate the voices of people both real and imaginary), Gerald's Game cleverly externalizes Jessie's inner-thought process by showing the beings that are speaking to her. By re-imagining King's original story for the medium of film in this fashion, Flanagan and his writing partner Jeff Howard allow room for leads Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood to carry much of the movie on their shoulders - which they do, with flying colors.
Both actors technically play two roles here (the real Jessie and Gerald, as well as the versions that may only exist in Jessie's psyche), allowing Gugino and Greenwood to express a wide range of emotions through their respective performances. Naturally, Gugino gets a more compelling emotional arc here, as the horror of Jessie's situation forces her to not only find the strength to survive, but to confront her personal demons in the process. At the same time, however, Greenwood gets more than his fair share of time to chew the scenery as Gerald's ghost (?): a malicious being who torments Jessie about not only her current predicament, but the secrets and lies that she has long been holding onto.
Flanagan further heightens the sense of tension and unease about how much of what Jessie experiences in the film is even real, through his directorial approach. Gerald's Game is a single-setting thriller for the majority of its runtime, so Flanagan and his longtime cinematographer Michael Fimognari use constrictive camera shots and precise editing (which Flanagan also handled) to maintain a suffocating sense of atmosphere throughout the scenes set in Jessie and Gerald's bedroom, in spite of the unchanging scenery. These moments are effectively contrasted by the scenes that take place outside of the couple's remote lodge (including, the flashbacks to Jessie's past), which are more warmly lit and welcoming by comparison... even when terrible things are happening. Gerald's Game generates horror more through suggestion that onscreen imagery for much of its runtime, but be warned: when things do get explicit, the movie becomes rather graphic and very disturbing, very quickly.
While it falls to Gugino and Greenwood to handle these gruesome moments in the film's present-day, the flashbacks to Jessie's past in Gerald's Game are equally ominous and unnerving in their own way. These scenes bring Henry Thomas (who also worked with Flanagan on Ouija: Origin of Evil) into the mix as Jessie's father; in the process, further developing Jessie's character and backstory with the assistance of a multilayered performance by Thomas that could have easily been over the top. The other most noteworthy supporting performance in the film is that by Carel Struycken - best known for his performances in movies like The Adams Family and his role in the TV series Twin Peaks - as the effectively sinister, Grim Reaper-like figure who haunts Jessie under the cover of moonlight.
The only major flaw with Gerald's Game lies with its third act and the dramatic narrative development that it lifts directly from King's original novel. Most of the movie is emotionally-grounded and doesn't require too much suspension of disbelief to follow, in no small part because it always leaves room for doubt about how much of what is happening is and isn't real. Because of this, the big turn of events in the third act strains credibility and feels tonally at odds with the rest of the film by comparison. It's not a deal-breaker and might work better for some viewers than others (especially those who have already read King's book and know what to expect), but the end result is that Gerald's Game wraps up on a note that seems more likely to prompt head-scratching than anything else.
A questionable conclusion aside, Gerald's Game makes for another fine addition to the larger collection of Stephen King books-turned movies and joins this year's IT on the list of great adaptations of the author's work. The film is also a testament to the acting prowess of stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood, as well as Flanagan's ongoing evolution as a storyteller in the horror/thriller genre who continues to refine and improve his craft with each new film. Our advice: this is one game that you should take the time to play.
Gerald's Game is now available to stream through Netflix. It is 103 minutes long and is Rated TV-MA.
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