Based on the 1992 novella of the same name, Gerald’s Game is the latest adaptation from the prolific catalog of literary legend Stephen King. One of King’s lesser known works, Gerald’s Game begins on a very peculiar premise and becomes increasingly unnerving from there: a couple, desperately attempting to rekindle the flames of romance, turns to more lurid solutions during a weekend in the woods. Unfortunately for Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino), nothing goes as expected and she suffers a living nightmare of psychoactive proportions.
Per usual, director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) lays the groundwork with a contrary balance of thoroughness and alacrity. Within the first ten minutes, viewers will have a solid understanding of Jessie and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), their marital strife, the dynamics between them, and sense the faint traces of disquiet the missus has not only about the weekend excursion but her marriage in general. From the moment Gerald and Jessie make their way to this isolated region of coastal Louisiana, Flanagan adeptly his talents to create this eerie maelstrom of uneasiness with a series of techniques and long takes. The overhead shot of Gerald packing his luggage. The stray dog staring down the couple after they interrupted him feasting on roadkill. Jessie’s strange reactions to normal household objects. All these seemingly unrelated moments provide a slow build to a film that pares away layers its audience (if they hadn’t read the book) never would have expected and certainly weren’t prepared to witness.
Hours after Jessie’s husband’s demise, the trauma of the event causes her subconscious to physically manifest a pair of survival mechanisms – in the form of Greenwood and Gugino herself – to help Jessie survive this radically unorthodox ordeal. Like Flanagan’s previous Netflix outing Hush, he excelled in creating a level of tension by relying solely on Gugino, who confidently hefts the film on her shoulders in what are essentially dual roles. While Gerald acts partly as Jessie’s Id and a shadow of her late hubby’s personality, “Jessie” is the strength and resolve the one bound to the reinforced bed has repressed for decades. As she literally withers away physically and mentally, Jessie must rely on these specters to find a means to escape as well as confront the demons of her past.
It’s discovered Jessie had enduring far greater trauma in her formative years and despite burying it deep in her unconscious, she must now confront these demons in her weakened state. Her very will to survive is directly tethered to these junctures and they provide some of the most graphic imagery of Gerald’s Game (although the film overall is very subtle with its violence and gore); the further Jessie tumbles down this chasm that is her psyche, the more we recognize how this film has taken on another form. Everything that appeared random and off-kilter in the beginning now makes sense. The shock and horror of Gerald’s passing now pales in comparison to the terrors Jessie suffered in her youth. In finally acknowledging it in her rapidly declining state, she’s empowered and renewed in her efforts to make the best out of her life, even if it possibly kills her.
Impressively, all this is presented to us without smoke and mirrors or flair, not even a score. It was the raw, unfiltered suspense Flanagan has built his growing reputation upon and still remains a gratifying experience.
Gerald’s Game – produced by Intrepid Pictures and distributed by Netflix – is now streaming.