Editor’s Note: Gerald’s Game is currently playing on streaming and in limited theatrical release.
There exists a divide in the works of Stephen King that is equal parts fascinating and frustrating, whereby fantastical elements awkwardly converge with an otherwise prevailing realism, and vice versa. It seems like such an obvious statement to make – the best fantasies and allegories are all girded in the realism behind their symbols, after all – but even in King’s most sacred works, the tendency to either over-fantasize or over-literalize is profuse. We’ve just experienced one side of the paradigm with the release of It, an adaptation that felt consciously grounded in the context of a source material that become excruciatingly, fantastically weird. And now comes Gerald’s Game, which does the same thing to a more frustrating effect. Its literal explanations didn’t so much ground the narrative as entrench it.
Not to say the film is a failure; to the contrary, it is actually a more elegant King adaptation than It, one that has a better handle on what it wants to be and isn’t bound to the simultaneous pull of audience expectations and the requirements of setting up a sequel. It’s just that what it wants to be is so slavishly loyal to driving home every final detail of the 1992 novel that it loses some of the intrigue cast by its initial spell. Therein lies the troubling divide of King’s works – so many of his themes are humane, but are painted into a delicious horror/fantasy corner from which they sometimes can’t escape. What results is an authorial choice between doubling down on the oddity or pivoting to earthbound exposition mode. It the novel doubled down on oddity while the film tried to stay on the level. Gerald’s Game overcorrected itself into normalcy and the film follows suit, but might’ve been more potent if it languished in the bizarro world.
After all, the “bizarre world,” in the context of this story, is actually the very definition of human frailty, since it is all based on the unpredictability and unreliability of the human mind. Jessie (Carla Gugino) is both hero and “villain” in this story, since she is the only person who can resolve her predicament, but her mind persistently acts as a saboteur. You see, Jessie has both wrists awkwardly tied to the wide posts of a bed frame, the purposeful positioning of her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), an attempt to inject some spice into their sex life on what was intended to be a secluded weekend getaway. Jessie doesn’t like the victimized implications of Gerald’s roleplay, at first quietly and then more forcefully demanding that they stop the charade. But before he can untie her, Gerald suffers a massive heart attack, falling to the floor and leaving Jessie bound to the bed.
As directed by Mike Flanagan, the film unfolds as a survivalist chamber drama in which Jessie is the only character, though her mind creates alternate versions of both herself and Gerald who act as the veritable angel and devil on her opposing shoulders, dialoguing about lingering possibility of escape and the sinking inevitability of death. Flanagan also directed 2016’s Hush, which in retrospect now feels like a warm up for this film, with its strong central heroine visualizing her constant thought process amid a harrowing situation that seems insurmountable. Clearly, this one-set, single-character thriller is a mode of which Flanagan is becoming a master, creating visual intrigue out of the innately limiting framework by using the camera as a character that is both suggestive and intimidating, and by generating a context in which the central character can experience a mental break and therefore dialogue with invented versions of crucial characters. Gugino carries the day brilliantly, sinking her teeth into what amounts to dual characterizations, and Greenwood thrives when he can float freely as a nasty imaginary prick.
Additional layers are built into this deceptively-simple premise, all based on the plague of human fears that are only worsened in times of distress. A stray dog wanders into the bedroom and gradually feasts on Gerald’s decomposing body; might he also prey on Jessie? A mysterious “Moonlight Man” seems to be lurking in the corner whenever darkness strikes – is he a figment of Jessie’s fear or a literal monster waiting to lead her into hell? Jessie’s deepest fears, however, are thoughts of her childhood, when she was the subject of her father’s repugnant sexual desires. It’s the sequencing of painful memories, current panic, and thoughts of the horrors that await that define Jessie’s ultimate struggle.
Such swirling implications are the stuff of great psychological drama, and Gerald’s Game is at its best when it mines them on that precise level. Since Jessie is our eyes and ears, but becomes increasingly unreliable, we don’t necessarily need all the answers to the film’s mysteries, at least not in a concrete sense; sometimes the fact that mysteries plague us as imperfect beings is answer enough in itself. King’s novel – and, in turn, this film – reaches its moment of highest suspense and then lets the air out of the balloon by over-explaining every last detail. It’s an unfortunate denouement to a film that is nevertheless powerfully wrought from beginning to (almost) end.
Gerald’s Game a powerful film, at its best when it mines its psychological implications, but then reaches its moment of highest suspense and then lets the air out of the balloon by over-explaining every last detail.