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[Review] ‘Gerald’s Game’ is a Raw, Relentless Ode to Female Empowerment

Gerald's Game

Mike Flanagan delivers one of the most grueling, satisfying Stephen King adaptations to date with the internal horrors of ‘Gerald’s Game’.

“This is going to be good for us, Jess. Real good.”

Not long into the runtime of Gerald’s Game, a “joke” gets told: What is a woman? Nothing but a life support system for a cunt, of course.

That simple piece of vulgar misogyny that’s fairly representative of King’s novel is what this entire film boils down to in the end. This story is sure as hell going to show you what a woman is and that it’s going to amount to a whole lot more than being a crude patriarchal punchline. King’s story revolves around a woman—and the gender as a whole—repeatedly getting knocked down, both figuratively and literally. Flanagan however channels this harsh brutality to deliver a gripping piece of female empowerment, perhaps when it’s needed more than ever. While this acts as a strong message in itself, this also happens to be one of the most impressive, engrossing Stephen King adaptations to date.

Gerald’s Game, the novel, has quite the notorious reputation amongst King’s literary works. The novel tells the fairly streamlined story of a sex game going horribly awry with the results seeing a housewife stuck handcuffed to a bed, completely helpless. Gerald’s Game has largely been considered to be “unadaptable,” with so much of the story taking place within its protagonist’s head and veering into extremely uncomfortable subject matter. It’s the book that broke a lot of people on Stephen King, with many readers taking a prolonged break from the author after Gerald’s Game.

All of this amounts to Gerald’s Game being a weighty task to take on and it’s certainly not a Stephen King story that people have been hungrily asking to see turned into a film over the years. Accordingly, it’s clear that Mike Flanagan is making this movie because he wants to and is passionate about the source material, rather than this being some studio gig or publicity grab. This makes Flanagan the best man for this job in a lot of ways, with the results absolutely not disappointing. Not only does the director make an excellent film out of the “unadaptable” book, but Flanagan ends up producing one of the most satisfying Stephen King adaptations of all time. IT is the King film that everyone is talking about this year, but Gerald’s Game goes toe-to-toe with Misery, which is high praise for this oddball psychological thriller. In fact, it’s kind of unbelievable.

Beyond the basic premise of Gerald’s Game exploring how a woman is capable of escaping from a seemingly impossible situation, it’s really a story all about how repression isn’t a sustainable means of getting by in life. Eventually all of that pent up trauma is going to bubble up and boil over. Whether you’re chained to a bed or just going through your day-to-day life, it’s still going to boil over. Gerald’s Game is about confronting those past horrors and turning them into your strengths. This isn’t going to be some study of a marriage in trouble. It’s something much deeper.

Jessie being chained and frozen in time forces her to come to terms with the long-repressed abuse that she’s been denying since she was a child. The film excels at showing the ways in which men have walked over Jessie her entire life, whether it’s her husband or her father. Jessie’s just been re-living the same events, so to speak.

There are passages in the film about how Gerald is unable to get an erection during foreplay unless he’s physically abusing or controlling Jessie. Many conversations are had about being the “dutiful wife” and what a woman’s role should be in a marriage, while plenty of shade is simultaneously thrown at men and their manipulative gaze. These conversations are all super powerful in terms of what this film is trying to say on those topics and it brings the picture to a more powerful resolution in the end, too.

Flanagan expertly draws out the pivotal experience where Gerald snaps those handcuffs onto Jessie’s wrists, with each click of the cuffs’ mechanics getting milked for all of its subtle horror. The film juxtaposes Gerald pretending to be an intruder that’s breaking in on Jessie with an actual invader that risks putting her in real danger. Gerald tells Jessie to shout out for help, with her compliant gestures soon transforming into more and more genuine terror. Jessie begins to lose control of all of these realities and once these buttons begin to get pushed, that’s when everything begins to spiral out of control.

Gerald’s Game is a film that is absolutely trying to say something, but beyond the heady themes, it cannot be stressed enough at just how beautiful the cinematography is here. The film manages to take a single room setup and fill it with endlessly inventive camera angles and shots. Everything dealing with the eclipse is also pure fever dream bliss that pops extra hard and is just stunning to take in. It’s satisfying to see how Flanagan executes the more ethereal material from the novel.

There’s also just plenty of smart camerawork going on here like the film pointedly starting with a shot of a bed as Jessie and Gerald prepare for their vacation. Once Jessie is chained up, the film wisely plays into her limited perspective by deliberately painting things in skewed, obscured vantage points due to her angle. She can’t see what’s going on so neither can the audience. It’s a useful way to put the viewers in the same restrained position that Jessie is in where their minds are forced to do the heavy lifting here. Speaking of which, the damn foley work on “Cujo” crunching away on dear old Gerald never stops being disturbing.

Elsewhere, long, methodical shots linger on Jessie’s struggling, trembling hands. There are many moments when close-ups of fingers manipulating objects are filling up the frame, which is exactly what this film should look like. None of the raw nature of King’s novel is omitted. Jessie’s brain and her hands get to be the heroes here with the film finding many creative ways to display that.

Such a boiled down film of this nature can live and die based on its performances, with everyone on board here thankfully rising to the occasion. Bruce Greenwood does a great job as Gerald, the incessant voice nagging in the back of Jessie’s head. But Carla Gugino really goes above and beyond with her work as Jessie. She’s like crazy good here. This is not a simple role to play and it’s an even easier performance to blow, but Gugino keeps things continually exhilarating and nuanced as Jessie is repeatedly put through the wringer.

There are a lot of different sides to Jessie that get explored and Gugino does a fantastic job showing Jessie go lucid and begin to lose her mind as she almost gleefully barrels towards her end. Watching Jessie break down the math of her existence as she tries to figure out what to do, only having herself to depend on, is really incredible stuff and Gugino completely nails it. Furthermore, Flanagan cuts with frenetic pacing between the many voices in Jessie’s head, representing her chaotic imbalance, with the dizzying visuals playing perfectly here. King’s novel features Jessie speaking to a myriad of women in her head, but the idea is something that would feel rather antiquated here. Flanagan makes efficient updates here to focus Jessie’s roaming thoughts into a tug of war between herself and her husband. -Even some of Stephen King’s more over the top, romanticized dialogue from the novel manages to feel more appropriate in this version due to the frenzied way Jessie’s mind is firing off.

It can also not be emphasized enough at just how compelling it is to see Jessie’s inner self try to talk her through this situation while the voice of Gerald continually intervenes. It’s all subtle work but Gugino masterfully shows the many different ways in which Jessie is fractured. All of this comes together with Gugino’s utter anguish being the cherry on top. Flanagan makes this work so well that it makes the idea of this being an unadaptable book seem absurd. He makes this look easy.

The film expertly weaves hallucinations in and out of Jessie’s reality as she begins to lose grip on things. She begins to let her venomous mind full of self doubt and hate take over and eat away at her as she stews in her own juices. All of this material taking place within Jessie’s head is handled so perfectly and is deeply grueling and thrilling to the point that it almost doesn’t even feel like the film needs to add more of a physical threat to Jessie’s situation. Like everything else from the novel, Flanagan handles the souvenir collecting skeletal serial killer exceptionally well (with “Twin Peaks” actor Carel Struycken also being inspired casting). The film of course plays with the idea of whether this boogeyman-like figure is actually present or just the product of Jessie’s stressed mind in order to push her to get moving here. Perhaps it’s even Death itself, taunting her as Jessie gets closer to being within his grasp. Real or not, this Moonlight Man is 100% terrifying.

As Jessie’s time begins to run out, Flanagan makes the audience sense the dread that’s creeping up as she begins to contemplate going to serious, bloody lengths to remove herself from her predicament. He makes the audience just as tense as Jessie is as this impossible decision begins to become more and more real. It’s a messy, crazy conclusion that Flanagan doesn’t shy away from in the slightest. It’s the perfect sort of ending to an internal drama of this nature and if you weren’t queasy beforehand, there’s no way you won’t be afterwards.

The notorious “de-gloving” sequence from the novel is so gruesome and over the top that many people (myself included) had to put the book down while reading it. Others have even passed out from the intense passage. It’s part of the testament of the powers of the imagination, which also makes this a near-impossible task of achieving in the film version of this scene. Flanagan does not disappoint here and the final act of this film is as bloody and intense as fans of the novel would hope for it to be. I was screaming and wincing at the screen repeatedly through this ordeal, with this again being exactly the reaction that any fan of the book would want to experience from this sequence.

It’s surprising how polished and efficient Gerald’s Game ends up being. It nails the heavier moments of King’s novel while also turning simple actions like getting a drink of water turn into hearty celebrations. Not only do incredible performances elevate the pulpy subject matter here, Flanagan’s efficient eye films the hell out of this while eliminating some of the more cringe-worthy moments from King’s novel (such as a particularly awkward from the dog’s perspective where Jessie is referred to as the “Bitch Mother”). Plus, there’s also a fucking wonderful Dark Tower reference in here (that’s not even in the novel) that made me squeal out loud that only acts as more proof of how much Flanagan understands and loves King’s material (and more salt in the wound over how disappointing the recent Dark Tower film was). Gerald’s Game is as perfect of an adaptation as it gets, with the film being a tight, hypnotic thriller that will handcuff itself to your brain and not let go.

4.5/5

‘Gerald’s Game’ begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, September 29th

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