“This was never going to save us.”
Excluding The Dark Tower, everything is coming up aces for Stephen King and those adapting his works in 2017. It just became the highest-grossing horror film of all-time, 1922 is due out on Netflix in a few weeks, and Mike Flanagan has turned a relative unknown into a solid thriller for Netflix. Now, Flanagan has proven himself a capable workman with his projects Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Oculus, but he had never attempted anything by the King of Horror. With tin-ear dialogue and a difficulty landing on a place to end, adapting King’s work can be hard, fortunately, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard make Gerald’s Game work. Managing to do so is more of a surprise given that it was never made into tv or film because it was deemed “unfilmable”.
Jess (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) are on their way to a weekend getaway to rekindle the romance. Candles, Kobe beef, champagne, all the works are included. Another surprising item in Gerald’s bag is what will define the weekend, however. Two pairs of handcuffs that Gerald uses to confine Jess to the bed. What started as a little kink turns into a full-blown fantasy rape scenario, where Gerald refuses to let Jess out of the cuffs. Once he clutches at his chest and keels over, Jess must make some tough choices to get out alive.
Restricted to one bedroom, most of the narrative burden falls to Carla Gugino. Left in shock by her husband’s ill-timed heart attack and trapped to the bedframe, Jess must also contend with a very hungry dog that has let itself into her house. Another one of King’s favorite trademarks; her predatory adversary goes from metaphorical to literal. Flanagan squares most of his shots up to let the scenery do the talking, but the film is not without its flourishes. There is a gauzy finish to the scenes before the handcuffs come into play. Once rekindling a relationship gives way to assault, the picture goes back to stark reality.
Despondency sets in early for Jess: she shouts for passersby, but won’t try to extricate herself fully from the situation. Memories of her failed marriage haunt her in the form of Bruce Greenwood’s ethereal, snarky self. Gugino’s performance as Jess is one of the most affecting characters to appear in a King adaptation. CGI and demonic possessions are of little to no use here. Where the power of Gerald’s Game comes from is Jess reclaiming her history from abusers. In particular, Gugino’s wrenching portrayal of a woman bound to her trauma figuratively and literally. Without her, the film would not hold up at all. Couple that with It’s Beverly (Sophia Lillis) and female protagonists are finally getting a fair shake from King’s stories.
Credit should also be given to Bruce Greenwood and Henry Thomas for their parts as Jess’s antagonists. Tension would be difficult to maintain in a film set in one bedroom where handcuffs have to do the heavy lifting, but the actors never let up. And if Gerald’s Game were just left to one woman’s survival instincts, it may have coalesced into a better film. As it stands, utilizing the novel’s coda brings the pacing to a screeching halt. That and a few in-jokes to other King novels like Cujo temporarily took one out of the film. Still, with so much else to offer in terms of compelling drama, Gerald’s Game is a worthy addition to the Stephen King cinematic universe.