An “unfilmable” Stephen King novel becomes one of the best Stephen King films.
Some books seem tailor-made for big-screen adaptations with plots, set-pieces, and themes easily and effectively translated up onto the screen. Some books, though, including Stephen King‘s 1992 novel, Gerald’s Game, present a world and characters so insulated as to make the thought of a worthwhile film version highly unlikely. Of course, the same thing could have been said regarding the odds of making a great prequel to a bland studio horror film about a Ouija board.
Turns out writer/director Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil) is a fan of challenges.
Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino, Watchmen) and her husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood, Wildlike), have a special weekend planned at their lake house. They’ve been out of sync for a few years now, and they’re hoping to reconnect both emotionally and physically — they’ll be alone, away from the demands of his job, and she’s already agreed to try something kinkier in the bedroom. He handcuffs her to the bedposts and begins to role-play, but she quickly decides this game isn’t for her. An angry Gerald begins to argue, but his rant is cut short by a heart attack that sees him fall over and drop to the floor.
Jessie’s trapped. She can’t escape the cuffs, she can’t reach her phone, no one’s within screaming distance, their rush to the bedroom left the front door open in their wake… and soon a stray dog is feasting on Gerald’s flesh. The hours tick by, thirst and fear settle in to her body and mind, a creepily silent figure appears to visit in the night, and Jessie finds herself looking back to a trauma from her past and a horrific act committed by her father (Henry Thomas). If she’s going to survive the present and live to see the future she’ll need to finally come to grips with her past.
Gerald’s Game is a story about forgiveness — of yourself, not others — and of taking the power away from those who’ve wronged you. Its emotional well runs far deeper than most thrillers as flashbacks and visions reveal a young girl hurt by someone who should have protected her — someone who instead paired abuse with feelings of guilt and self-doubt — and the end result is a suspenseful, emotionally-affecting drama punctuated with moments of terror, sweetness, and at least one cringe-worthy and grisly rending of tender flesh.
Gugino is front and center throughout the entire film, and she delivers an immensely compelling performance that keys viewers into her pain, desperation, and hope. We’re with her every step of the way as she faces off against the terror of both reality and imagination. One of Flanagan’s and Jeff Howard‘s script contributions towards making the film work involves taking voices out of her bed and giving them form. Gerald rises from the floor — he’s still dead and decomposing on the ground, but she’s imagining his presence — and an untethered Jessie appears as well. They represent opposing sides of her own personality with one spouting doubt and insults while the other shares encouragement and positivity.
It’s a good thing too as more Greenwood is always better, and he does great work here as both Gerald and Jessie’s imagined “Gerald.” He’s fierce and troubling, but there’s a fragility beneath the surface of a man who’s far too unsure of himself. Thomas does strong work as well as a vile man committing unforgivable crimes, and it’s enough to make you forget how innocent he’s seemed since E.T.
The film’s singular misstep — and skip this paragraph to avoid a possible spoiler — is unfortunately a big one due mostly to its placement at the end of the narrative. After being immersed in Jessie’s world for ninety minutes, the film takes a cue from King’s novel with a narrated coda set some time later. It works in the novel as we’ve been hearing Jessie’s voice throughout, but here it grinds the story’s momentum to a halt in an effort to tie up themes and offer closure. We go from living this nightmare with her to simply hearing about what came next. It’s an unfortunate downturn for an otherwise terrific thriller.
Gerald’s Game makes a misstep in its final minutes, but the remainder of the film succeeds at building suspense, increasing our pulses, and making viewers care about one woman’s struggle… that in turn reveals itself to be the story of many. It’s unsettling, heartfelt, disturbing, and wise, and it’s easily one of the best of the numerous King adaptations. (And quick side note, fans of the novel will also appreciate that the film keeps its connective tissue to Dolores Claiborne.)