Amidst a Stephen King renaissance, of big budget blockbusters like It and The Dark Tower, it might be easy to let Gerald’s Game go under the radar. Gerald’s Game is by no means one of King’s more popular novels. It wasn’t a hit with critics or readers, and contains a very polarizing ending that has been heavily criticized. So, why would Mike Flanagan carry a copy of the novel to every meeting he went to, hoping that one day one studio would allow him to make his dream film?
Gerald’s Game focuses on couple Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), who go to their vacation home to bring some much needed life back into their struggling marriage. Jessie and Bruce are two different people: Jessie sympathizes with a stray dog eating roadkill off the street, and Bruce wonders what could be done to keep stray dogs from standing in the middle of the road while he’s trying to drive. So, how do they plan to spice up their marriage? Jessie brings silk lingerie and a complacent attitude for Bruce’s fantasies; Bruce brings handcuffs. As Bruce closes the cuffs around Jessie’s small wrists and the sturdy tall bed posts, we get the impression from his almost devious expression that this is not going to end well. And it doesn’t — Bruce dies of a heart attack soon after strapping Jessie in, leaving her trapped and helpless. Even worse, the stray dog hungrily saunters in, ready to play a waiting game. After Gerald’s death, this becomes Jessie’s movie — she’s the only living character on screen. Her subconscious manifests in a version of Gerald that pops up and criticizes her behavior and another version of herself that just wants the physical version of her to survive. This new Gerald criticizes her actions in their marriage in a way that only Jessie would be able to. The second version of Jessie stands up for actual Jessie by biting back with harsh commentary. It’s compelling and smartly written — Jessie’s forced to come to terms with all that’s happened in her marriage that leads her to this point. Gerald’s Game is a character study of Jessie, whose situation embodies her experiences.
Gerald’s Game is led by Gugino’s powerhouse performance. She has to play two parts: the tough and powerful manifestation of Jessie’s subconscious and the fragile and desperate physical Jessie who sits restrained with her arms suspended. Her second self criticizes Gerald’s sexual performance, all while the physical Jessie chokes out horrified sobs. She tackles both characters with enough distinction to demonstrate the contrast between them, but also with enough similarity between both versions to make them feel connected and unified. Greenwood also does great work here. There was something off about the way the living Gerald behaved that made him intimidating; and Greenwood’s portrayal of Jessie’s mental manifestation of Gerald is very different from the now dead Gerald, but not so different as to be unrecognizable.
Flanagan’s passionate direction is what truly helps the film land on its feet. He documents Jessie’s inner turmoil and distress with wide shots that almost always capture her suspended arms to remind the audience how helpless Jessie is. His love of the characters really shines through, and he guides his actors to give their all to an unconventional premise.
Gerald’s Game isn’t exactly what you think it is. Everything about it feels unexpected; from the powerful ending and the characterization of Jessie, to the literal and figurative monsters that haunt our trapped protagonist. But it all works. There was a lot of room for error and Flanagan guides his passion project through it with graceful attention. I’m just as happy that Netflix gave Flanagan the opportunity to make his dream movie, because it’s a film that I won’t soon forget.