Gerald’s Game, Stephen King’s 1992 novel about a woman who finds herself in perilously restrained circumstances, has long been considered unfilmable. Enter Mike Flanagan, whose prior work (Oculus, Hush) marked him as one of American cinema’s most confident and canny new horror voices, and whose adaptation of King’s tome is one of the most uniquely suspenseful offerings of the year. Premiering exclusively on Netflix Sept. 29, and starring a phenomenal Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood, it’s further confirmation of Flanagan’s expertise at intricately knotty terror—and, also, his gift for orchestrating psychological insanity, with his latest fixated on one woman’s grueling confrontation of unthinkable abuse.
As with his home-invasion saga Hush, Gerald’s Game is a logistics-oriented thriller. Yet in this case, the problems faced by its female protagonist are of both an external and internal sort. That woman is Jessie (Gugino), who embarks with her husband, Gerald (Greenwood), on a trip to a remote lakeside cabin, where they’re set to spend a quiet getaway together. As evidenced by the handcuffs Gerald packs in his bag, however, he doesn’t envision their vacation being too quiet. Although Jessie’s face vacillates between excitement, fear and disinterest when Gerald tries to slide his hand up her dress during their drive, she seems reasonably amenable to some bedroom adventurousness. After a run-in with a rabid stray dog that’s munching on some road kill—and that Jessie tries to later entice with some of Gerald’s pricey Kobe rib eye steak—Jessie dons a slinky slip, lays down on the bed, and lets her Viagra-enhanced spouse manacle her to the bedposts.
While such kinkiness initially seems like a kick, their tryst quickly turns sour when Jessie senses that Gerald is interested in living out a more-violent-than-sexy rape fantasy, and rebuffs his advances. When she demands that he let her out of the cuffs, he refuses—and then, suddenly, grips his chest. A heart attack ensues, with Gerald collapsing on top of Jessie. She kicks his body off of her, and he lands with a thud on the floor, blood pooling around his head. Flanagan stages this sequence, and what comes next, with a shrewd combination of master shots, close-ups and Jessie’s-POV views of the action, thus creating a subtle yet powerful inside-out dynamic. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough for Jessie, the aforementioned dog enters into the room (courtesy of an opened front door), and—having now developed a taste for fresh raw meat—begins gnawing on Gerald’s arm. Which, stunningly, causes Gerald to awaken.
Or, at least, to awaken in Jessie’s mind. From this point forward, Gerald’s Game plays out both in reality and in the imagination of its trapped heroine, who engages in lengthy debates with her (dead) husband as well as a more confident version of herself. The former taunts her about her weakness and proudly boasts about his domination of her—epitomized by a joke whose punchline is that a woman is “a life support system for a cunt”—while the latter tells her to ignore Gerald’s gibes and focus on figuring out how to extricate herself from her confines. Given that Flanagan has already slyly laid the groundwork for that escape attempt through early offhand gestures (a water glass placed on a shelf; a clothing tag ripped off a negligee collar), this portion of the film plays out with cool, efficient plausibility. But the proceedings soon take a turn for the truly disturbing when, in one of many conversations with herself, Jessie is told that the key to her liberation lies in her past. Specifically, with “him.”
The individual in question is Jessie’s dad Tom (Henry Thomas), whom we see, in flashback at a vacation home, commit a heinous act against his 12-year-old daughter (Chiara Aurelia) while they watch a historic eclipse. Light turns to darkness then, and things only grow blacker still when, in a follow-up chat, Tom manipulates young Jessie—with wretchedly calculating arguments—into promising (begging) to keep this atrocious incident a secret. It’s a tranquil scene of pure, unmitigated malevolence, more dreadful than anything found in a straightforward slasher film, and Thomas handles it masterfully—which is to say, with an ugly combination of cunning, deviance and shame. Good luck maintaining your fond memories of the E.T. star after this, as the actor’s work here, which comes to involve a series of knowing smirks laced with arsenic, is nothing short of bone-chilling.
Flanagan’s slow zooms into close-up (and away from characters), as well as his deft cross-cutting between the present and Jessie’s childhood, prove understated, powerful means of maintaining uneasy dread. And he doesn’t let up on the outright menace either, be it the feral dog who glares at Jessie with hunger in his eyes, or the appearance in Jessie’s bedroom of a nocturnal specter with a bag full of trinkets who comes to be known as “The Moonlight Man”—and whom Gerald claims is Death himself, even as Jessie remains convinced he’s just a figment of her fragmented psyche. Certainly, Gerald’s Game makes clear that Jessie isn’t altogether lucid. Yet what gradually emerges is a nuanced portrait of a woman desperately navigating a minefield of the mind in order to escape her literal and figurative prisons. And in the process, the film (thanks in large part to a frightening Greenwood) incisively outlines the many devious ways in which men control and scar women—not only via physical mistreatment, but also emotional and mental exploitation.
Gerald’s Game ultimately argues that monsters are real, and that they can only be defeated (or, at least, “minimized”) through direct confrontation—even if that means revisiting long-buried secrets and dragging them out of the shadows and into the light. Flanagan lays bare the difficulty of such a process, never better than in a prolonged single-take speech by Greenwood’s Gerald about Jessie’s impending doom. By that point, of course, Gerald is long dead, meaning it’s really Jessie inflicting wounds upon herself, thus amplifying the twisted state of these affairs. Her eyes alive with anxiety, fear, and resolve, often at the same time, Gugino is a marvel, capturing a piercing sense of Jessie’s beaten-down brokenness as well as her underlying strength, culminating in a gruesome deed that’s all the more nerve-rattling for being so courageous, defiant, and empowering.
Flanagan’s film is a deep dive into the lacerating horror of abuse, but in its climactic moments, it also locates hope in the idea that, with painful sacrifice, liberation from one’s demons is possible.