Mike Flanagan (director and editor), Michael Fimognari (cinematography)
Adapted from Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game by Mike Flanagan
Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas (cast)
Released September 24th (Fantastic Fest), September 29th (internet release)
Content Warning: Sexual abuse.
I went into Gerald’s Game having not read the book (I shouldn’t be allowed to call myself a Stephen King fan) and wasn’t familiar with director Mike Flanagan’s other films in the horror genre. Gerald’s Game wasn’t what I expected it would be.
Before we get too far in, a Cliff Notes synopsis is in order: a married couple, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie (Carla Gugino), head to their secluded lake house in hopes of repairing and reigniting their marriage. After popping one too many Viagra in the midst of “foreplay” (for him), Gerald suffers a heart attack, leaving Jessie handcuffed to their bed. Unable to unlock herself or reach a phone to call for help, Jessie must somehow find a way to survive.
Now entering spoiler and trigger territory. You’ve been warned.
Gerald’s Game is a brave but unsettling film that’s hard to watch. Flanagan’s horror directing experience helps move the story along fast enough that you’re surprised to find that the film is almost over and you’ve been holding your breath for the last ten minutes.
Gugino is perfect as Jessie. Come award season, Gugino deserves to win all of them. You see her uneasiness and insecurities on her face and in the nervous way she attempts to seductively place herself on their bed. These small hints of who she is speak volumes without Jessie saying a word. The key to knowing who these characters truly are (after all, the bedroom is where we’re most vulnerable and free) is watching the body language between Jessie and Gerald (while he’s alive) in the scenes they have together.
Where Gugino’s Jessie is timid and hesitant, Greenwood’s Gerald stands and prowls (almost like a dog), in the bedroom. Its pretty amazing to watch these two personalities literally clash in the bed. Tension begins to build as Gerald eagerly handcuffs her to the bedposts and begins to get aggressive. One side note to make about this scene is that Gerald seems to be wanting a dom/sub dynamic and the first thing that requires is consent. Jessie clearly isn’t consenting as Gerald tries to push the boundaries into rape fantasy territory while she squirms and tries to please him. The thing that triggers Jessie to fight back and put a stop to it is Gerald asking her if she wants to “play with Daddy,” or something along those lines.
It’s a hard scene to watch as Jessie fights against Gerald and succeeds in fending him off. Gerald, fuming, doesn’t uncuff Jessie, leaving her in a Christ-like pose as they begin to bring up the many problems of their fading marriage. It becomes very clear in a few sentences of dialogue that their marriage wouldn’t be fixed by just a weekend at their lake house.
This idea becomes more central once Gerald suffers a heart attack and Jessie cries helplessly. She’s weak, exposed, and alone. Or is she? As Gerald’s body turns cold, two figments of Jessie’s imagination solidify in the form of survivor Jessie and Gerald (or the domineering Gerald that Jessie saw throughout their marriage). This is brilliant on Flanagan’s part because, from what I’ve read, the book is mainly Jessie’s inner monologue and in film it’s very hard to convey the shifting tones and dialogue in a character’s mind. Survivor Jessie is tough, blunt, and strong—who she was supposed to be if she hadn’t been abused.
As the sun begins to set, the dark begins to play tricks on Jessie and she can’t decide if the Moonlight Man (played by Twin Peaks alum Carel Struycken) is real or a figment of her imagination. He’s creepy as hell and I loved that Flanagan didn’t overuse him, including him just enough to question Jessie’s sanity and ratchet up the tension.
As Jessie’s repressed memories begin to slowly come back to her, a stray dog creeps into the room to feast on Gerald’s flesh (figment Gerald lovingly refers to him as Cujo). She reflects on her past as she tries different ways to get free herself. Jessie’s repressed memories flood her mind in the dark and we see pre-teen Jessie being abused by her father as they watch an eclipse sitting by a lake. It’s rough. There are some very heartbreaking scenes that deal with the aftermath of the abuse, and I need to give mad props to Chaira Aurelia and Henry Thomas for acting such difficult scenes.
Gerald’s Game is a film consumed by darkness with rare periods of sunlight peaking through—just like an eclipse. This is very intentional on cinematographer Michael Fimognari’s part. He knows what he’s doing with the light and the various shades of darkness (deep blacks, browns, greys). Once the plot is in full swing, we rarely see colors that are bright and warm. Fimognari and Flanagan keep the camera tight and focused with little movement.
Gerald’s Game isn’t a movie I’d turn to on a rainy day or watch regularly. It’s a film that makes you sit next to Jessie in that room and next to her during the eclipse. It’s a survivor story. It’s not easy, it’s painful, it’s heartbreaking, and you aren’t the same person you were when you started watching the film.