Of the many Stephen King novels, “Gerald’s Game” is one of my favorites. Hearing the author talk about it on an episode of Fresh Air with Terry Gross, I was instantly intrigued by its premise of a couple’s sex game gone wrong to where the husband dies and the wife is left handcuffed to the bedpost with no means of escaping. The more King talked about it, the quicker I was to leap out to the bookstore to buy a copy (albeit, when it came out in paperback).
I was also intrigued at the possibility of “Gerald’s Game” being made into a movie as it presented unique challenges to daring filmmakers; how can you stage the action when much of it takes place in the character’s head? Furthermore, how many actresses would be willing to play such an emotionally draining role? Many have described this particular King novel as “unfilmable,” but I always had a feeling this would be proven wrong.
Well, Mike Flanagan, the director of “Oculus,” “Hush” and “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” accepted the challenge of adapting “Gerald’s Game” as he is also one of its biggest fans. Along with screenwriter Jeff Howard, he has made this seemingly unfilmable novel a cinematic reality as he puts us right in the head of its main character as she is trapped in a predicament which presents her with physical and emotional terrors we live to avoid in real life.
We are introduced to Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) as they pack their bags for a weekend getaway to their house by the lake. It is filmed to look like an average vacation with them gathering their things. That is, until Gerald puts two pairs of handcuffs in his bag. Once they arrive, it doesn’t take long for them to get up to the devil’s business as Gerald cuffs Jessie to the bed. You can see in her eyes she is really not into this sex game of his, and she tells Gerald to stop. Gerald, however, suddenly suffers a fatal heart attack as the result of taking one Viagra pill too many, and he drops dead right there on the bedroom floor. Just like Renton told Begbie in “Trainspotting 2,” “Remember not to exceed the stated dose.”
Jessie is then trapped in a most unfortunate situation as she and her husband picked a time to vacation when everyone else is not, so it’s unsurprising to realize is no one around for miles to hear her screaming for help. I have seen this a lot in horror movies, a married couple vacationing at a time when the tourist season is non-existent, and it’s like they have the whole place to themselves. Heck, “Gerald’s Game” would make for an inspired double feature at New Beverly Cinema along with “Honeymoon” as both deal with the same predicament.
Flanagan sets up things for us cleverly as he shows how isolated Jessie and Gerald are from regular society. We meet the dog who will later become hungrier than ever even after Jessie offers him a piece of steak which Gerald tells her costs $200 a pound. Beyond that, the two of them even leave the front door open as if the house represents Pandora’s Box. This all adds to the growing tension as we know how badly this game will turn out for the two of them.
Once the action focuses on Jessie being handcuffed to the bed, Flanagan gleefully tightens the screws. A cellphone is on the nightstand next to her, but it’s just out of her reach. There is a glass of water nearby, but she cannot bring it to her lips. And then we become witness to her hallucinations as her situation becomes increasingly precarious to where we feel every bit as vulnerable as she does.
The way Flanagan handles Jessie’s hallucinations is quite brilliant as they take the forms of herself, her dead husband, and even her younger self (played by Chiara Aurelia). Flanagan also edited the film, and he keeps us guessing as to where we should be looking next as the focus changes before we realize it. I loved how successful he was at catching the audience off guard as the POV shifts constantly as I had no idea where it would go next.
“Gerald’s Game” does feature a music score by The Newton Brothers, but the film works best when the only sound, other than what’s outside Jessie’s window, is silence. I don’t know about you, but I need some form of sound, soothing or otherwise, to calm my brain just to even fall asleep. When everything is silent, I cannot help but be all too aware of my surroundings and feel like Dee Wallace’s son hiding under the covers in “Cujo.” Flanagan seizes on this silence as every single sound takes on a new, and much more frightening meaning.
Things get even more unnerving when we are taken back to a time when young Jessie was watching a total eclipse with her father. While watching it with special glasses, her father ends up doing something no father should ever do to their child. We don’t see exactly what he’s doing, but it’s enough to make us squirm in our seats as we know it’s something very inappropriate. Henry Thomas, years removed from “E.T.” and “Cloak & Dagger,” turns in a fantastic performance as Jessie’s father, Tom. Just watch him as he carefully manipulates Jessie into keeping this event a secret from her mother. The way he slyly gets Jessie to see things his way reminds me of what a good actor Thomas still is, and that’s even when you want to break his character’s nose.
Some horror movies either show very little or show everything, and with “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan finds a balance between this. We never see much of Gerald’s body once it flops onto the floor and out of Jesie’s eyesight, nor do we get a specific view of which body parts the dog is feasting on (what did you expect? He almost got to eat a $200 steak). He does, however, show us Jessie’s ever-so-delicate movements as she retrieves a glass of water without breaking it just as Eddie Murphy had to carry one over a bottomless cavern in “The Golden Child.” Of course, this moment is completely dwarfed by the method Jessie undertakes to free herself as it provides us with a cringe-inducing scene on the level of James Franco amputating his arm in “127 Hours.”
If there is anything wrong with “Gerald’s Game,” it is the inclusion of the Raymond Andrew Joubert character (played here by Carel Struycken) whom another describes as “the man made of moonlight.” Indeed, this was also a big problem with the novel as Raymond figures prominently in its last half to where it felt like I was reading a whole other book. Flanagan would have been best to leave this part out of the movie as it never fits here in any meaningful way, and the ending suffers because of it. Having said this, the character’s inclusion is almost worth the trouble as Struycken makes him a terrifying presence, especially when he first appears out of the shadows in the corner of Jessie’s bedroom. It is truly the stuff nightmares are made of.
Carla Gugino would not have been my first choice to play Jessie, and this ends up saying more about me than anyone else. Her work in the “Spy Kids” movies, “Sin City,” and on television shows like “Spin City” and the short-lived “Karen Sisco” should have made her a bigger star, and yet she still seems to be flying below everyone’s radar. Her performance in “Gerald’s Game,” however, should quickly remind us all of how fearless an actress she can be. This is not the most appealing role for anyone to take on as it is emotionally draining, and actors can fall into the trap of emoting rather than acting here. Gugino never does fall into this trap though, and she never backs away from portraying Jessie’s most agonizing moments as her privacy is invaded in different ways.
As for Bruce Greenwood, you can never go wrong with him. While he in no way fits the physical description of Gerald in the novel, it doesn’t matter because he makes the character both loving and undeniably creepy. Just wait until you see the look in his eyes. Even after Gerald dies, Greenwood remains a strong presence as he takes the form of one of Jessie’s hallucinations, and he makes Gerald as creepy in death as he was in life.
The images King evoked in “Gerald’s Game” still remain strong in my mind even though it has been over 20 years since I read it. Thanks to this novel, I will never listen to the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” in the same way ever again. I even got my dad to read it, and he later told me, “Why did you make me read this? It’s so revolting!” While many consider this novel one of King’s lesser works, I completely disagree as it still permeates my consciousness to this very day.
With this cinematic adaptation of “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan has succeeded in making a motion picture both compelling and agonizing to sit through. Even though I know how the story turns out, my eyes were glued to the screen as I wondered how the director would visualize the novel’s most extreme moments. In a year where King adaptations have ranged from excellent (“It”) to utterly disappointing (“The Dark Tower”), this one delivers as it prods at our deepest fears in the real world as they prove more terrifying than anything from the supernatural realm.
Speaking of “The Joker,” I kept waiting for that song to come on. Maybe issues with song rights kept Flanagan from using it. Or perhaps, after our first look at Raymond and his box of bones, it is clear he is not about to speak of the pompatus of love.
* * * ½ out of * * * *