Director: Mike Flanagan
Writer: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Producer: Trevor Macy
Stars: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Carel Struycken
Left handcuffed to a bed in a remote lake house after her husband unexpectedly dies, a woman struggles to survive while confronting her traumatic past.
Jessie Burlingame started living a life of silent torment at 12-years-old. Traumatic childhood scars translated into marital decisions made for reasons she never understood enough to consciously confront. It’s been a complacent haze of passive acquiescence to a seemingly ideal lifestyle ever since, even with her inner spirit chained somewhere inside her psyche.
Unfortunately for Jessie, she can’t summon the strength she needs to break free without going through torturous Hell first. That opportunity comes during a secluded getaway meant to bring her marriage back from the brink, when husband Gerald’s supposedly romantic role-play turns into a rape fantasy Jessie wants nothing to do with.
Gerald unexpectedly drops dead, leaving Jessie handcuffed to the bed with no one to her screams except a stray dog gnawing on Gerald’s corpse. Jessie creates strange companions when her frantic mind splinters into visions of Gerald as well as a dominant version of herself. Forced to face the life that figuratively shackled her to the chains literally trapping her now, Jessie delves deep into her memories to forge a new identity capable of coping with intense manifestations of pain.
“Gerald’s Game” represents filmmaker Mike Flanagan staying in the strong stride of slow-smoldering style he hit with “Oculus” (review here) and maintained through “Ouija: Origin of Evil” (review here). Frequent collaborators including producer Trevor Macy, writer Jeff Howard, and cinematographer Michael Fimognari are clearly synched to his macabre vision for the Stephen King adaptation.
Every scene, every shot, every inclusion is carefully considered before being crafted with purposeful precision, as is required by a premise confined chiefly to two actors in a single room. Such intimacy permits few errors, challenging confident artists to achieve peak creativity. Everyone meets that mark too, right down through each performer in the cast.
No bones about it, “Gerald’s Game” erects a stage almost exclusively for Carla Gugino, who completely commands all aspects of her characterization. Whether called to play submissive automaton, ferocious fighter, or commonly conflicted Everywoman, Gugino dismisses any requirement for a spotlight by radiating engaging energy no matter which Jessie she embodies.
The film’s multilayered facets hide inside the deceptive simplicity of tight, theatrical play staging. Yet Carla Gugino aggressively leads the charge in externalizing the internalized complexities of a story hinging chiefly on emotional drama and psychological horror.
As much as it is Gugino’s movie, supporting stars are equally stellar. It’s a copout cliché to say, “so-and-so has never been better.” But even with a catalogue as deep as his, I’m having trouble recalling another film where Bruce Greenwood slid so smoothly into the skin of a man made from charismatic affluence, duplicitous cunning, and frightening sadism. Gugino and Greenwood pair perfectly, matching each other’s moods and mindsets with countering conflicts keeping intensity elevated.
In a similar vein, Henry Thomas obliterates all preconceptions of “E.T.’s” Elliot or young Norman Bates with his heartbreakingly haunting portrayal of Jessie’s father in flashbacks. Thomas channels sympathy only to twist it into shocking sickness during a disturbing depiction of incestuous abuse that is uncomfortably chilling in its realism.
Mike Flanagan is too resourceful of a director to rely on the direct route of hands under clothing or low angles looking up at an awkward mouth warning, “don’t tell your mom.” Coupled to Thomas’ turn as a subtly manipulative monster, Flanagan finds a cinematically striking way to suggest this delicate horror through a visual metaphor and deliberate camera placement. Editing and color timing in this sequence alone illustrate inherent flair for measured storytelling.
The movie’s moments speak for themselves in this manner, with Gugino and the others capable of conveying any nuance needed. Which is why it is weird that a 100-minute runtime doesn’t trim all of the fat from excess dialogue or an over-explained epilogue too exuberant about grounding a secondary boogeyman. These later minutes dilute core themes of redemptive struggles with scary spookshow stuff the film doesn’t really need.
Having said that, when “Gerald’s Game” goes for a visceral gut punch, it is unflinchingly gruesome. For all the film has working in its favor as an acting showcase and psychological frightscape, one particular scene will go down among the most disgustingly awful moments ever featured in a horror film.
In the end, this capability to elicit strong reactions from its audience is proof of the film’s power. “Gerald’s Game” takes many cues from its Stephen King cousins “Dolores Claiborne” and “Misery,” with one captive woman’s mind taking the place of Annie Wilkes as her master tormenter. Yet it is very much its own terrifying tale of torture and survival told in a fashion that can turn stomachs into knots while fingernails dig deep inside clenched fists.
Review Score: 80