Director: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Carel Struycken, Henry Thomas
Writer: Jeff Howard, Mike Flanagan
A review by Michael Walls-Kelly
We all have that little corner inside of us, a button we won’t admit we want pressed, that we never reveal to anyone.
Something we’re too embarrassed or insecure to expose to even our closest, most trustworthy partner. But what if we do reveal that piece of ourselves? What if we let someone else know about that private kink or that childhood trauma? How do we know if we’ve chosen the right person?
I suppose we never know. Maybe — ultimately — it doesn’t matter. Because if we can’t come to terms with this little piece, however big or small or serious or frivolous it is, then it doesn’t matter what an outside party believes. That’s the crux of Gerald’s Game, a deceptively simple Netflix thriller that’s an interesting psychological mind game.
Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) are a typical married couple that find themselves in a rut. They’re affluent, middle-aged, in possession of a lovely summer house. Gerald is hoping for a weekend filled with sex games to spice up their marriage. Jessie seems more interested in feeding a stray dog. Gerald has made sure they won’t be disturbed this weekend and Jessie isn’t quite sure what to expect.
When Gerald decides to spice things up by handcuffing Jessie to the bed, things take a turn. After a terse and revelatory conversation between the couple, Gerald suffers from an unfortunate yet plot-convenient heart attack. That’s the crux of our story, the solid concept that Stephen King stumbled upon a couple of decades ago, Jessie’s struggle to stay alive.
Mike Flanagan does a fantastic job of setting up the geography of our main location. Besides the beginning, the end, and a few flashbacks we spend all of our time in the bedroom. We’re casually shown the open front door, the cell phone on the side table, the handcuffs, the glass of water on the headboard. Flanagan does a great job of keeping a single room interesting, especially by relying on his actors.
Gugino and Greenwood carry the movie entirely. I had read Gerald’s Game when I was 12 or 13 and forgot how much actual Gerald was in the film. I assumed Greenwood would be wasted casting, but he’s fantastic as both Gerald and Jessie’s Mind Greenwood. Gerald is, at times, douchey, sad, sympathetic and awful. Mind Gerald is somehow more complex. He’s pessimistic and, often, realistic side of Jessie’s mind. Luckily, she also has Mind Gugino to bounce ideas off of and snap her out of her darkest thoughts. Mind Greenwood and Mind Gugino don’t necessarily equate to the angel and the devil on her shoulder, they’re more nuanced than that, but they definitely exemplify the competing thoughts in her mind. Give up and go quietly or find every way that she can to fight.
The best parts of the film are Gugino’s struggle to remain calm and figure out how to get free. Obviously, that can’t fill an entire movie, and the filler material works with varying success. The flashbacks to her childhood are accurate to the book and inform her character and situation, but maybe drag on a beat or two too long. Jessies’ father (Henry Thomas) is perfectly pathetic, and young Jessie (Chiara Aurelia) makes for an eerie match to Gugino. The content of the scenes and the shots themselves — particularly the arresting eclipse shots — exemplify a depth for Jessie that is only hinted at in the beginning.
The scenes of the Crypt Creeper — a deranged man who digs up corpses and steals their bones and jewelry — seem superfluous, but it’s managed to all be tied together. We’re not sure if the Crypt Creeper is real until the very end. But it doesn’t matter. He exists the same way Gerald exists, or Jessie’s dad, or the stray dog. He’s a predator in the night, and Jessie is, seemingly, an easy victim, chained to the bed and waiting to be part of the Crypt Creeper’s story.
But that isn’t true. Jessie, thanks in large part to Mind Gugino, comes to terms with who she is and what she can do. She’s been abused. She’s been made to feel small and worthless, but she’s also a survivor. She degloves* herself to get free. Jessie is stronger than she’s ever been given credit for.
*Do not Google what degloving is.
There’s a lot working for Gerald’s Game. I feel like, with a few tweaks, it may have ended up a horror classic. Ultimately Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) hasn’t made an A-plus film, but this probably comes the closest. He just seems to be missing a certain something. But it’s weird to dwell on that. The important thing is the creeping eeriness of the eclipse, the desperation of Jessie waiting while the stray dog lays near, the confusion of Mind Gugino and Mind Greenwood telling Jessie what to do.
Ultimately it’s a showcase piece for Gugino, who absolutely deserves it. It’s well-written and includes an uncomfortably gory scene that made me cover my eyes. Mind, body and soul, this is a Stephen King production, through and through.
Watch it! If you’re a fan of psychological thrillers, horrors, dark dramas or anything by Stephen King then you should definitely check this movie out. It is shockingly faithful to the original text — including references to The Dark Tower and Dolores Claiborne — and as internal and psychologically complex as it needs to be. I don’t guarantee that you’ll love it, but I guarantee that you should watch it.