Gerald’s Game

4 out of 5

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

The critics and horror sites have been quite impressed by Mike Flanagan, but he really hasn’t landed with me yet.  His style, from what I’ve sampled, seems to try to humanize and normalize horror – which I’d assume is what makes it more palatable to critics – but thus far, to me, it’s just made his films (and TV series outing) rather underwhelming.  Gerald’s Game, his adaptation of the Stephen King book, and, according to the Ebert review, a project long in the making, received similar praise as his other works, but also seemed to float somewhat under the radar.  As I’m not a King fan, and all I knew of the source material was from seeing the cover on book shelves back in the day and feeling like it was a “dirty” book, I had complete blank-slate expectations for the movie, and maybe that helped: I found it riveting, and exceptionally acted, and directed with a straight-forwardness that seemed borne of confidence with the material and not what I’d earlier viewed (in Flanagan’s work) as forced attempts to try to jam character work and “seriousness” into genre pieces, or, oppositely, the supernatural into competent dramas.

Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie (Carla Gugino) are planning a weekend away.  We get a shot of some viagra pills, some delicately handled handcuffs Gerald places into his bag, and shots of Jessie smiling with just that note of hesitation that lets us know she may not be looking forward to this.  Having arrived, she nervously dresses in lingerie, and as Gerald starts to initiate his titular “game” involving said handcuffs, Jessie laughs nervously, and we further get the gist: the marriage hasn’t been going well, and this is a bid to reignite some flames.  But as Gerald becomes too aggressive and Jessie calls a halt to it, he doesn’t respond well, and any conversation is halted when he has a fatal heart attack, and collapses upon her… while she’s still shackled to the bed.

We still have about ninety minutes to go, here, and I’m wondering what that could mean.

Flanagan navigates through this (putting visuals to the book’s apparent internal monologuing) by having Jessie visualize both her husband and a more confident version of herself encouraging her to either just give up and accept that she’s going to die in this bed – it’s a vacation home; no one’s going to show up for days; etc. – and to figure out something.  Gugino is brilliant here, in both her imagined role and the one on the bed, and Greenwood similarly plays his part perfectly, able to cast the hallucinated Glen as the composite of Jessie’s various emotions toward the man, without him ever seeming too absurdly evil or whatnot.  The escalation of issues as Jessie lies there is also very well handled, drifting between real dangers, imagined ones, flashbacks that show us the deeper-rooted experiences that have “shackled” Jessie to such a man, and her pokings and proddings at escape, culminating in one of the most painful sequences I’ve watched in recent past.  Showing something grisly and having us wince is one thing, but having us continue to wince through the sequences quite after is a credit to great filmmaking and acting.

Regarding the former, Flanagan’s weighty, patient shooting style is an excellent match for the film, as it grounds the whole experience, avoiding sensationalism and shock attempts that I suspect lesser versions of this flick would resort to.  It also makes the “trick” of Jessie’s conversations with multiple iterations of herself and Glen come across organically; it’s not played as a trick, but just a natural extension of her processing her situation.

The ending, which is also apparently taken from the book, though with some added thematic symbolism from Flanagan, has been criticized for undermining the impact of Jessie’s experience.  In some ways, I don’t disagree: Gerald’s Game is all about being in the moment, and the ending takes us far away from that sensation.  It also shifts the focus emotionally, which is probably a bigger sin, but the way things are presented throughout the movie, I’d say I was expecting that, and I can’t think of a better way to effectively “summarize” the character’s experience that wouldn’t either be cheap or mean, so the device used worked for me.  With all that said, I do think it goes on for a bit longer than necessary, past the point of accomplishing the wrap-up it intends to, and that does go back to Flanagan’s need to be all prim and proper about things.

Gerald’s Game doesn’t convince me that all of Mike Flanagan’s efforts leading up to this point are suddenly retroactively better, but it is such an excellent one-location horror thriller because of his style that it definitely encourages me to keep an eye out for what’s coming next.  …That’s, uh, not a TV show.