Take the formula that made Gravity a Best Picture nominated success: a woman stranded in a dire situation, left with nothing but her own wits and the ghost of a man to help her survive. Now, swap out space for a bedpost, substitute movie star George Clooney with character actor Bruce Greenwood, and put it through the lens of Stephen King and, voila, you have Gerald’s Game. This is a smartly made thriller that somehow manages to make an outlandish plot work, even when it starts to fall apart just minutes before the credits roll.
Based on the Stephen King book of the same name, Gerald’s Game follows Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Greenwood), a bored married couple hoping to spice up their love life during a weekend away at a secluded Maryland lake house. Things become complicated, however, when Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bed in an unwanted attempt at role-play, only to suddenly drop dead of a heart attack, leaving Jessie stranded and shackled, with water and a phone just out of reach, the keys on the other side of the room, and a wild dog roaming the house on the hunt for fresh meat.
But the event also triggers a traumatic flashback to her childhood and, suddenly, Gerald’s Game becomes more than just a survival thriller – it’s a story about processing trauma and freeing yourself of metaphorical shackles.
Once again, Mike Flanagan (Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Oculus), proves to be one of horror’s most original, economical horror directors working today. Gerald’s Game marks the latest addition to his growing filmography of thrillers with unusual premises that, somehow, work. It’s hard to make a film that’s largely confined to one space compelling, let alone for nearly two hours, but it, somehow, works.
The tension starts early and is held throughout, with new elements being added to the main conflict at just the right time. And while the film is not quite a horror film, there is some terrifying imagery and a gross-out moment that is incredibly effective and wholly earned. It’s not exactly revelatory work, but it’s Flanagan’s most mature, effective film to date, and proof that he can handle other high concept fare.
Carla Gugino also uses every second of Gerald’s Game to remind audiences that she’s talented and hugely underappreciated. Gugino remains captivating and, most importantly, believable, selling her characters’ terror and desperation to survive. But this isn’t a one-note performance, as Gugino pulls double duty and plays a personified version of Jessie’s subconscious, who guides her through this rather unusual trial and provides advice and support. Gugino plays off of herself well, and remains a joy to watch until the very end. In the smaller role, Bruce Greenwood turns in fine work, bringing a much needed sense of mystery to his role as Jessie’s uncaring husband and, later, a figure of his wife’s wild imagination.
Where the film falls into trouble is with the script, as problematic (slightly spoilery) elements are introduced to the story. As it turns out, Jessie has a history of abuse and objectification from men in her life, and while this revelation adds a level of depth to the story, it also feels far more disturbing then anything else in the story, which makes for some tonally uneven sequences.
And then there’s the film ending, an epilogue so bizarre and confusing that viewers will be left wondering what just happened once the credits roll. This ending is truly a head-scratcher and, to add insult to injury, is explained to viewers in a rushed monologue. True, this twist is surprising – but it fails on almost every other level.
That’s not to suggest the ending ruins the film. Even with some dark subject matter, this is a crowd-pleasing thriller that should entertain viewers as much as it makes them wince, scream, and move to the edge of their seat. Stephen King is having a moment right now – and a well deserved one at that, as It has proven to be one of the year’s most entertaining films. But don’t let this one slip through the cracks.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Gerald’s Game is streaming on Netflix