Gerald's Game (2017)

NOVEMBER 30, 2017


I for one couldn't be happier about the resurgence of Stephen King adaptations hitting movies and TV, after a curiously long drought that started in 2007 (when we had The Mist, one of the most acclaimed King adaptations, and 1408, one of the all-time biggest box office hits for a movie based on his work - seriously). Apart from the odd limited release film like Cell and TV shows that either didn't pan out (The Mist, again) or had little relation to the source material (Haven, which was very very loosely based on The Colorado Kid - they got five seasons for a show "based on" a book that was less than 200 pages) there just didn't seem to be much interest in doing King. But in the past year alone we've had the Hulu stuff (11/22/63 and the upcoming Castle Rock), Mr. Mercedes, It, possibly some other movie I'm totally forgetting existed and don't need to be reminded of in any way, and now* Gerald's Game, which is the second Mike Flanagan film to debut on Netflix after the terrific Hush.

To me, this is proof positive that filming King is a big deal again, because the novel is 25 years old and even more "unfilmable" than Misery (coincidentally, that one came out on a new Blu-ray this week and I discussed it here if you're interested). For those unaware of the concept, it's about a woman named Jessie (Carla Gugino) who is not particularly thrilled about her husband (Bruce Greenwood) trying to spice up their sex life with handcuffs, but is trying to go along with it for his sake. Alas it gets to be too much for her and she tells him to stop, and they start fighting - at which point he has a heart attack and dies, with her still chained to the bed and no neighbors around for miles - and a hungry feral dog in the house who will eventually get sick of snacking on her husband's corpse and look for something fresher. Of course, even if it was a real-time thriller you can imagine that a woman chained to her bed wouldn't be enough to sustain a feature running time, so Jessie starts cracking up a bit, imagining her husband and her mirror self in the room with her as sparring partners and motivators, filling in backstory and making the movie far more compelling that it would appear to be from the simpler description.

I have not read the book yet so I don't know everything that changed, but the Wiki synopsis of it tells me that she imagines other characters (including a shrink), whereas here it's just herself and the husband, though I don't think the movie lacks as a result. On the contrary I found it quite interesting, and it also made it easier to remember the central conceit, which is that these people were saying things that Jessie herself was imagining them saying. It's not like Split where they're supposed to be other personalities, nor is the husband a "ghost" or anything of that nature - she doesn't have access to any information that she didn't already possess, and so when a possible affair is mentioned, Greenwood can't say "Yes, I slept with her", because Jessie herself doesn't know for sure. It's just how she imagines the conversation will go at that particular time, which is not only interesting from a cinematic perspective but also a performance one. While Gugino has (rightfully) gotten plenty of acclaim for her performance, Greenwood also does some of his best work ever with a trickier role - 90% of what he is saying in the movie isn't necessarily him, but what his wife - currently very emotional and more than a little pissed at him - would imagine him saying. Greenwood can't ever go into full villain mode, because we're seeing a conflicted woman's impression of him. A part of her still cares about him and that comes out every now and then.

This technique also tells us, long before a flashback cements it, that Jessie doesn't stand up for herself all that often. Think of every imaginary fight you have with a friend or spouse - you tend to "win" or at least get a lot of good digs in, right? She never does, at least at first - she takes Greenwood's jabs and rarely fires them back at him. The approach also allows us to see her mind putting things together, something that's always proved to be difficult when adapting King as his characters spend so much time in their own heads, which is part of what makes people love the books (and in turn get disappointed with the movies). As a bonus, Flanagan is able to use an idealized version of Gugino as the imaginary one, with perfect hair and makeup, to fully visualize the actual Jessie's plight, as she suffers from dehydration and the general trauma of the whole thing. The only way to make Carla Gugino look "bad" is to juxtapose her with one that's ready for the red carpet, basically, so they truly lucked out there.

I also appreciate that he doesn't play up the more traditional danger elements, such as the dog. It's always around, but she tends to get rid of it quickly when it comes sniffing around, and he doesn't even really try to make it scary all that often. Early on Greenwood refers to it as "Cujo" (heh), but that's the only time you'll be thinking of him or any other killer dog. It's just hungry, it's not a boogeyman on four legs. Likewise, Flanagan doesn't stoop to pointless diversions that we know won't work, like having someone come to the door as Jessie tries to get his attention, and he thankfully gets Jessie's imaginary escape out of the way early, so we're never fooled for a second that we're watching anything but a daydream. The movie's about a lady stuck in her bed - she ain't getting out of it until the runtime is nearly over. Considering the story's limitations, it's easy to imagine a hack filmmaker would do everything they could think of to make it more visually exciting (I always think of Michael Bay taking a meeting on Phone Booth and asking "How can we get this out of the booth?"), so I laud them for sticking to the guns that King laid out in his novel, which obviously didn't have to concern itself with such matters.

On the other hand, maybe they could have deviated when it comes to the character of Raymond Andrew Joubert (spoilers ahead!). Throughout the film Jessie has glimpses of a boogeyman she dubs Moonlight Man, and it seems like it's just a weird little hallucination that she conjures to make sense out of this or that thing that's happening to her. But no! We find out the "man made of moonlight" is actually this Joubert, a grave robber/necrophiliac who has started to murder folks as well, and the film ends with Jessie confronting him in the courtroom. It's slightly different than the book (where he's dubbed "Space Cowboy") but the whole thing could have been dropped, honestly. As with any single location kind of movie, the second they leave the movie's essentially over, so that they drag it out for an additional 10-12 minutes with this stuff - which was barely even hinted at in the film's first 85 minutes or so - is slightly crippling. Sure it's nice to see how Jessie moves on, but it feels like a sequel rather than an epilogue, and since Joubert was never really a threat to her I couldn't quite care about him being arrested and tried. It'd be like if Halloween II continued so we could find out how that kid with the cut mouth was doing.

Otherwise, I had no issues with this unusual thriller, and it inspired me to move the novel up in my queue of King to read (next one's gonna be Misery, for the record). And it's another strong bit of evidence that Mike Flanagan is one of our few modern "masters of horror" candidates, i.e. the kind of guy that people will rip off in 20 years like they do to Carpenter and Romero now. Not saying he's on their level (yet), but with so many filmmakers these days branching away from horror at the earliest convenience, it's nice to see one that is happy to stick around - his next project is a remake of I Know What You Did Last Summer, for pete's sake. I just hope it or whatever else he does next gets a proper release - this is his second movie for Netflix and another (Before I Wake) has yet to be released at all in the US. Absentia got a shitty distribution too, so only Oculus and Ouija 2 have been seen by the masses (and naturally those aren't as good as his others, though at least they ARE good). But whatever path he takes, I know I'll be following - he's more than earned my trust at this point.

What say you?

*Now meaning like two months ago, but I'm slow these days so give me a break.


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