Synopsis – While trying to spice up their marriage in their remote lake house, Jessie must fight to survive when her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her handcuffed to their bed frame.
My Take – Honestly, this film was not on my radar, even though I have read a few of author Stephen King‘ novels, I had no idea about this one even existing. Furthermore, from what I understood from the film’s synopsis & trailers, this seemed like a film I was ready to skip. Yet, keeping in mind that we are entering to a new era of King‘s book to screen adaptations, thanks to the mega success of ‘IT‘, coupled with the involvement of director Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Hush, Oculus), one of the most underrated horror directors around, I decided to give into this Netflix release. To my surprise I witnessed, a deep psychological and undeniably clever thriller that gets into the base from the get go and doesn’t leave a moment without the awesome tension in the air. Yes, this is yet another remarkable addition to Netflix’s growing catalogue of original films — strange, scary, funny, and at times even weirdly comforting. The story follows Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), a wealthy middle-aged couple whose marriage has taken a decidedly bad turn, and is seeking a way to spice-up their life and reconnect a bit. Settling inside a lake cabin miles away from the city, and to spice things up in the bedroom, Gerald brings along some handcuffs that Jessie reluctantly allows to be put on her as she is shackled to the bedposts.
As Gerald’s role playing begins, he becomes a bit too rough for Jessie to hand, to which she objects, resulting in a heated argument which leads to Gerald’s accidental death from a heart-attack. Still handcuffed to the bed, with dead husband lying on the floor, and a hungry neighborhood dog who wandered in through an open door, Jessie realizes that she won’t be able to get any help, and must do whatever she can to try and escape from her imprisonment. All the while, her mental state increasingly deteriorates from stress, hunger & thirst; she begins to have flashbacks of her troubled past while also seeing a strange looking man in her room, who Jessie believes is actually death, who has come in person to collect her. It is indeed surprising how director Flanagan is able to make the film not only work, but thoroughly excel with clever structuring and top-notch performances. It’s a film that takes place almost entirely within a single room outside of a few key sequences and flashbacks, and yet it never feels dull nor does it fall into tedium. What makes this such a compelling film is how it is able to be legitimately creepy while also telling a very smart and relevant story. Jessie’s predicament is terrifying in and of itself, but then things become more layered as the film flashes back to her childhood in order to better understand how she came to be in this marriage in the first place. It’s such a spot-on glimpse at how past traumas can manifest themselves throughout one’s life, until they have to be faced head on. There is not a single wasted scene here, as everything has meaning either to the plot or character development. The film also cleverly allows dialog and character development to occur thanks to a rather brilliant device- having Jessie talk to hallucinations of different characters and people from her life including her deceased husband and abusive father (Henry Thomas), who all represent various pieces of her memory and her mental state. It’s an invaluable storytelling tactic that pays off wonderfully, and feels like an organic piece of the puzzle. One of the great strengths of this film was answering the questions you were going to ask before you asked them. Understanding from the beginning that Jessie was to end up handcuffed to a bed throughout the entirety of the film already had me questioning her inability to escape. Once Jesse is on her own, her brain forces her to examine her marriage and personal history while also trying to escape, that’s when director Flanagan inverts his directing tactics. As soon as you see her situation play out and begin to think of her options, the writers provided answers as to why that isn’t possible in a unique and believable fashion. With the multitude of challenges she has to overcome she is forced to relive her disturbing past, which in-turn must help her overcome her shackled state if she is to even have a chance of surviving. Every time the dramatic element kicks in, Flanagan reminds us that this film is as real as it is fictional.
Jess will have to stretch herself to keep the blood circulation going, drink water to sustain, and shoo away the dog when it tries to chomp on her. The ‘Moonlight Man’ was also a well conceived addition to the goings-on: a sense of gloom prevails, apparently personifying Death itself. As a director, Flanagan pulls off the narrative challenge by never forgetting that, for all its psychology, the film is still a visceral horror film. So he wisely captures all of the outside forces tormenting Jesse — a hungry stray dog, a stranger in the house, her confinement and failed escape attempts — in gory detail. The terror of these elements comes from bluntness, rather than surrealism. The dog, for instance, simply strolls in and out of the bedroom, clicking its claws and making wet noises as it nonchalantly chows down on the dead Gerald’s arm. There’s no CGI leaping; no glowing eyes or overlong fangs. The flashbacks to Jessie’s childhood are shot through with horror, not nostalgia; her coming of age is defined by survival rather than empowerment. Where the external horror is portrayed with grisliness, the psychological horror is fittingly more abstract. Because Jesse is actively trying to remember her past with Gerald and how it reflects abuse from her childhood, there’s a dreamlike quality to the flashbacks and hallucinations. Director Flanagan has made himself an expert in directing female protagonists in small spaces, for example, Oculus and Hush featured female protagonists confined to a single location and the parameters of this film allow him to do what he does best — explore his female characters while ratcheting up tension. The film also made me ponder over a lot of things – cases of incest and abusive husbands that fill up our newspapers every day, the event of the solar eclipse, the presence of something sinister (in the dark of the night), and introspection during arduous situations – Mike Flanagan connects these dots magnificently in a crisp psychological horror-thriller than runs for 103 minutes. However, the adaptation isn’t perfect; its weakest moments come when director Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard get preachy about men controlling women, or water down an already basic look at BDSM and female empowerment into something even more oversimplified. Yet to director Flanagan’s credit, this film was never going to be the easiest Stephen King novel to bring to the big screen, and despite a handful of faults, it’s that rare horror film that works well on every level. The film of course also hinges on the strength of its cast, and fortunately Carla Gugino is more than up to the task, as is Bruce Greenwood, who gets his fair share of snappy dialogue and is responsible for some appropriately amusing moments. In a fair world, she would have easily found herself a Best Actress Nomination at next year’s Oscars, but unfortunately Netflix films don’t qualify yet. Though I’ve been a fan of hers for some time, I’ve never seen Gugino in anything quite like this. She carries the entire film, and covers a range of virtually every emotion possible with an ease and sense of realism that was frankly awe-inspiring. Greenwood is also quite a bit of fun here, as he is allowed to play the character in several different lights, especially after his death when he begins to re-emerge as a vision seen by his wife. He’s slimy but charming, sympathetic but unlikable, it’s a unique balancing act, and Greenwood nails it. Henry Thomas is also very good. On the whole, ‘Gerald’s Game’ is a well-executed psychological thriller that is legitimately creepy & incredibly smart.
Directed – Mike Flanagan
Rated – R
Run Time – 103 minutes