‘Gerald’s Game’ Review Ties You Down And You’ll Like It
I read Gerald’s Game not long after it was released – somewhere in the mid-’90s. It was one of the most intense and memorable reads I ever undertook.
And so with great apprehension, the continued talk of a movie version (lo these many years) – put my nerves on edge. Not because of the subject matter, but because I had the thought, “This can never be made into a film.”
Well, after my recent screening of Gerald’s Game, I can certainly take back that naysayer nonsense.
From director and co-screenwriter Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Absentia, Hush, Before I Wake) and with the original Stephen King novel at his side – Gerald’s Game is powerful, engaging and at points – hypnotic.
Jessie and Gerald Burlingame (San Andreas’ Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood) are off to their remote summer retreat – long before the season has actually begun (meaning there are no neighbors around). Their marriage is a bit strained and the idea is to liven things up with a weekend away, which includes some new sex games – namely Jessie being handcuffed to their sprawling bed. Let the sex games and role-playing commence. But Jessie quickly realizes that she’s not in the mood for this experimentation.
When Gerald continues the charade – acting as if Jessie’s objections are part of the game – she fights back. Gerald has a heart attack and falls from the bed.
He’s dead. And that’s the first 15 minutes, folks. Add into the mix of Jessie’s desperate situation – a starving, stray dog, an onslaught of repressed childhood memories, dehydration and hallucinations – and you’ve got Gerald’s Game. Oh, and did I mention the possibility of someone (real or not?) entering the lake-side home at night?
While the performances from the two leads are something to behold (get to that in a moment), the real star of the film is the editing. With so many back and forths between reality and dehydration-fueled hallucinations, it’s a wonder how the filmmakers kept track. And the transitions are frequently at a break- neck speed.
It’s this central idea which I figured would be impossible to translate to the screen. But dammit if I wasn’t impressed with how they pulled it off. But I won’t spoil the goodness of this perfectly conceived and expertly executed story-telling tool.
Of course everything is cut severely to accommodate a feature film running time, so things in the book will be seriously trimmed (the retrieval of the water glass in the book had to have gone on for at least 50 pages). However, I was impressed that so many of the hallmark features/moments in the book – were intact.
Of note is the final escape sequence. The re-creation of this scene in the film – is almost as gruesome as in the book itself. It’ll have you groaning with disgust, sympathetic pain – all while genuinely marveling at what the special effects make-up folks achieved. For you fans of the book – they totally went there.
Carla Gugino’s performance was simply stunning. I don’t know if the fact that this was released to Netflix will keep her work from being recognized by major awards (it probably will), but her work here is certainly worthy of serious recognition. With the way the film is structured, she gets to hit every single emotion (through several different character outlets), and hit them she does. Even aside from all of her emotional work (the initial shock of Gerald’s heart attack made for some intense and wonderful hysterical reactions out of Jessie) – you have to pay tribute to the fact that she was hand-cuffed in this bed for 90%
of the film. So we can assume that she was in this position for much of shooting. That alone should earn her some extra points for stamina.
Bruce Greenwood is certainly a stark contract from the version of Gerald in the book. In the novel, Gerald is kind of pudgy and balding and not particularly attractive. But Greenwood – sporting the body and abs of a Greek God – is shirtless for most of the film – and appetizingly so. His physique aside – it’s a great performance (see discussion of his best scene below) from this veteran actor. He’s got the cockiness necessary for what needs to be a semi-unlikable character. And when he comes out as one of Jessie’s inner-voices – he really shines (again – see discussion of his “hypnotic” scene below).
I was kind of bummed by the casting of Carel Struycken as The Moonlight Man (“Space Cowboy” in the book). Not that he’s a bad actor (his work in The Addams’ Family, Witches of Eastwick and Star Trek: The Next Generation prove his greatness), it’s just that it was such an obvious choice for the role. Perhaps because he’s so familiar to me, it took some of the mystery and fear out of the character. The Moonlight Man’s first appearance in the book was – no joke – gasp-worthy. And while I would have cast someone perhaps lesser-known, like Javier Botet (IT, Mama) in the role – the character’s first appearance in the film was just shy of being as powerful as that one-sentence reveal in the novel. That was the moment I first realized that Mike Flanagan and team had pretty much nailed it.
The casting of Henry Thomas in such a pivotal role was really inspired (he plays Jessie’s father Tom in multiple flashbacks). We know him so well as young Elliott in Spielberg’s classic E.T., so to see him in a part so outside of our expectations – it sort of throws you for a loop (in a really great way). On top of
that, he of course nails the performance – with the highlight being Tom’s bedroom conversation with young Jessie (a devastatingly good performance from young Chiara Aurelia). It’s disturbing on so many levels and with Thomas in this type of role – the awkward and terrifying factor is increased exponentially.
Now to address the use of the word “hypnotic” mentioned above. Done in what appears to be one take, there’s a monologue from Gerald – close-up talking to Jessie about potential discovery of this terrible scene by outside parties. It’s one of those scenes which draws you in so completely – the dialogue, the performances, the camerawork all working together perfectly to make a most memorable moment. It’s truly a thing of beauty. It was all reminiscent of my favorite sequence in The Conjuring 2. The “easy- chair in the out-of-focus background” scene. You know what I’m talking about. Mesmerizing. And so was this scene out of Gerald’s Game.
The film’s epilogue (which I can’t discuss with much detail) was a big favorite when reading the book, throwing so many “if’s”, “and’s” and “but’s” into the story. But it unfortunately doesn’t translate to the screen. It’s not bad, but it felt a bit schmaltzy – even though the power of that one moment out of the book – was still striking and scary as hell, when you realize what could have been and what never would have been.
With two lead performances that could potentially flirt with the term “legendary”, a very true adaptation of the source material and some amazing moments of nauseating suspense, gore and frights – Gerald’s Game is a surprising winner. Not surprising because of the talent behind it, but again – because I never, ever believed this could be made into a good film.
How wrong I was.
While I’m unsure of the film’s status as far as my year-end top 15 – I won’t completely rule out the film’s placement on that coveted list.
Gerald’s Game is now streaming on Netflix. I think if you’re a fan of the book, or a newbie to this story, it’s something you won’t want to miss.
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