Gerald’s Game. 2017. Directed by Mike Flanagan. Screenplay by Flanagan & Jeff Howard.
Starring Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken, Kate Siegel, & Chiara Aurelia.
Not Rated. 103 minutes.
I’ve long adored Stephen King, ever since my mother introduced me to his books. I first saw them on her shelves, unable to read them until she said I was old enough, then I fell in love. His writing is so human, even when he’s dipping into the supernatural.
Of all his novels, Gerald’s Game is entirely human, despite touching on aspects that are definitely not of this world. Best of all, the novel’s protagonist Jessie Burlingame (played here by the fabulous Carla Gugino) is at her most vulnerable in a situation requiring her greatest strengths.
King’s story explored so much of Jessie’s life, her experience with the men in it, the events those relationships further precipitated. Director Mike Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard manage to illustrate all the important moments in the film’s 103-minute runtime. Sticking so close to the novel, it allows Flanagan to bring its imagery to life in a unique way that’s exciting even for readers like myself who’ve read and revered the book already.
More than that it’s the themes at play which resonate, especially at a point in time where we need more strong films taking on the horror of misogyny. Gerald’s Game explores the dichotomy of truth and lies within a marriage, how sexual fantasies— particularly rape-fantasy— turn men into dangerous foes instead of husbands to the wives they supposedly love, as well as how those titles like husband, or father, don’t mean anything when in the face of predatory men.
And all of this relies on the powerhouse performance of Gugino, whose Jessie— the centrepiece of the story, despite the title— must either transform into the powerful women lying in wait inside herself, or else perish.
“Well, I‘m pretty sure you just lost your mind.”
At its core, King’s novel is a metaphor of the overall misogyny women experience at the hands of men in every facet of life. Gerald’s Game works on several levels. It’s Gerald’s (Bruce Greenwood) game to bring the handcuffs to the cabin, to spice up his and Jessie’s marriage. It’s also the game many men play, making a woman feel as if she has to conform to his idea of sexuality and how they express it as a couple in order to ‘save the marriage.’ Jessie must play the game with Gerald, though later on we discover how, stuck between her father and mother, young Jessie had to play an entirely different game.
The main ideas floating around from the start centre on Jessie and Gerald’s marriage. Is your partner who they truly are, or merely who you want them to be? Do they, after a time, just become our vision of their personality instead of themselves? Through her predicament, left handcuffed to the bed after Gerald has a heart attack and cracks his head on the floor, Jessie forcibly confronts herself, ultimately. Both her own identity and also her relationship to her husband, how she views him as a man and a husband— plus, how being a man is inextricably linked to any other role a man plays.
Being stuck in the cuffs is a literal event, but it’s likewise an allegorical one. Jessie’s been controlled by men, one way or another, her entire life. So now, she must wholly rely on herself to break those figurative and literal bonds and free herself, to live again and to keep on living. The later we go on, the above quote transforms into more of a gaslighting question than one we understand as Jessie actually having a mental breakdown, stuck to the bed. She has to overcome the fantasies men wish to impose on her to survive.
“You‘re only made of moonlight“
Jessie’s mental state and her perspective are, obviously, crucial to the novel, which is the major reason Flanagan creates such a perfect adaptation with his film. There’s a stream of consciousness feel, as he weaves back and forth from past to present, dropping us in and out of memory. We slip from waking visions to nightmarish sleep, blurring the edges of reality until the actual moments of genuine reality crash in, frightening the viewer as much as Jessie.
Like in the novel, the Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken), the Space Cowboy, is where the idea of the supernatural exists, on the edges of the story’s heart. We never know what’s pure fiction, dreams and nightmares interchangeably. The Moonlight Man is like a shadow cast by real life into Jessie’s subconscious, conjuring up awful things she sees between sleep and struggling to get out of those cuffs. Until the finale, where the men in Jessie’s life, from her father to her husband, come to a culmination in the worst of man— a necrophile serial killer. He was real all along. And with this reality comes the other reality: the worst she believed about the other men in her life— her paedophile father, her misogynist husband masquerading most his life as a loving one while harbouring a dark rape-fantasy— is also very real.
At the same time, the film’s ending validates Jessie, her struggle. Throughout her ordeal, she faced not only her spacial limitations, stuck on that bed, she pushed past the mental violence that’s been afflicted on her with the physical violence that accompanied it. She’ll never forget what’s happened to her. But she’ll also never let it dictate her life.
“You‘re so much smaller than I remember“
The victory of Jessie is what makes everything worth it. Yes, there’s horror, there’s so much tension and suspense it could eat you alive. Same as it was in King’s novel. By the end, Flanagan offers us the hope and the power in Jessie that King did, Carla Gugino’s quiet power punctuating the character’s transformation.
Again like the novel, the end is phenomenal. Flanagan gives us one important set of images in those last moments that hammer home the allegory at work. Gerald’s line “Don‘t ask a question you don‘t wanna know the answer to” becomes the crux on which the film and Jessie’s journey hang. Because she’s asked the questions, she’s confronted their answers, and still, she stands.
Gerald’s Game, for Father Gore, is perfect. Out of the park adaptation, on top of the pile with the best. Flanagan works on the viewer’s nerves, using the isolated setting and plot to his advantage, the paranoia coursing through each frame, so much so it’s the quiet moments which truly land the hardest impact. Many who aren’t familiar with the original King novel might get a different impression just by the poster or the trailer or reading a plot summary, but this is a movie about a powerful woman. She doesn’t know she’s powerful in the beginning. It’s the transformative journey she undertakes at the hands of her husband, a microcosm of general misogyny, which reveals this power to her. For all its graphic qualities, Gerald’s Game goes for the emotional, existential terror lurking inside the relationships of women’s daily lives.