Fantastic Fest Review: Gerald’s Game
I think it’s safe to say that we are at peak Stephen King. The nostalgia for the screen adaptations of the late 70s and early 80s, like Carrie, Stand By Me, and Pet Sematary, have cycled into the new adaptations coming out, like the blockbuster films The Dark Tower and IT, and television shows Mr. Mercedes and The Mist. It’s like the time the 13-year and 17-year cicadas came out at the same time – there’s a lot of buzz coming from every direction. Fantastic Fest has embraced the Stephen King mania bringing us two features that adapt Stephen King’s works, both brought to us by Netflix, 1922 and Gerald’s Game. Both films have their merits, but it was Gerald’s Game that really socked me in the chest and gave me the signature King–creeps.
Gerald’s Game was once considered one of King's inadaptable works. It’s about a woman who is handcuffed to a bed, who is being both tortured and sustained by her own imagination. It is all inner monologues, but director Mike Flannigan found an ingenious device and the perfect cast to bring this intimate story of horror and survival to the big screen. Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) are headed to a secluded, woodland cottage in an attempt to spice up their stagnant sex life and save their marriage. Jessie is initially reticent when her husband busts out the handcuffs, the “real deal” instead of the fuzzy novelty cuffs she anticipated, but she does her best to be game for Gerald. When he starts acting out a rape fantasy without her consent, she starts insisting to be un-cuffed, but Gerald is shamed and agitated. They argue as she negotiates and begs to be set free, but then he clutches his heart, which is flooded with rage and Viagra, and falls down dead. Jessie is left chained to the bed with no one coming to save her and nothing to do but survive.
Both Bruce Greenwood and Carla Gugino give impeccable performances as the dysfunctional Burlingame’s that play on the twisted insecurities that inherent in a loveless marriage. Through Gerald’s condescending corrections of his defensively obedient wife, we see that Gerald has dominated their relationship by taking a tone of authority. In the bedroom, it’s clear that he feels Jessie owes it to him to go outside of her sexual comfort zone, and that she will ultimately be grateful for what he gives her if she would just listen to him. Greenwood steers these micro-aggressions through subtle shifts of expression, going from stern to kind to impatient with menacing ease. Jessie is mentally exhausted by maintaining her husband’s fragile ego, having to remain hyper-vigilant of the warning signs – the way he hiked up her skirt in the car, the pill bottle on the counter, the swift forgiveness of feeding wagyu steak to a stray dog. Gugino expression is of a woman who needs to escape even before the cuffs are clasped. It’s only after Gerald collapses in a heap that Jessie assesses the man she married and realize that he doesn’t add up. She’s forced to ask the terrifying question, “Who did I marry?”
As Jessie fights for her survival as she’s trapped to that bed, her subconscious starts dredging up memories that she attempted to drown a long time ago. While her present is trying to keep her alive long enough for someone to try and find her, her past is offering up clues to how she got in this terrifying situation in the first place. That past involves some painful childhood memories of sexual abuse. Flannigan addresses these issues with sensitivity. The scenes are devastating and tense, but never exploitative. He uses the time and a symbol to reiterate those complicated emotions, not an action, so that our heroine and our audience don’t have to be re-traumatized repeatedly. That is the kind of conscientious creativity the genre world has been pleading for.
For the fledging Stephen King fan who hasn’t read the book, Gerald’s Game has some off-genre surprises that will keep them on the edge of their seat. Jessie’s delirium has blurred the lines irrevocably between what is real, what is vividly imagined, and was supernatural. It also has all of the sacred King staples - the family drama, the suspense, and gore to remind you who you’re messing with. There are plenty of Easter eggs for the King devotees who have cracked a spine or two literarily speaking. Mike Flannigan’s device for making Jessie’s fevered thoughts come to life is flawless in it’s simplicity, and the performances of Bruce Greenwood and Carla Gugino drive home the urgency and madness of being in mortal danger in the safety of your own marital bed. Gerald’s Game premieres this Friday (tomorrow - 9/29/2017) on Netflix. I suggest you watch it in the dark, snuggled in your bed, with your favorite spouse.