When Jessica and Gerald Burlingame (Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood) retreat to a remote cabin in an attempt to save their failing marriage, Jessica learns some unsettling new things about her husband’s sexual fantasies. Handcuffed to the bed, she watches in horror as he dies of a heart attack, leaving her helpless and trapped in what may become her deathbed — unless she can push through her terror and formulate a method of escape.
Adaptations of popular books are always a fraught proposition, and this is rarely more true than when dealing with the works of Stephen King (as seen with the anticipation and worry leading up to the release of this year’s Andy Muschietti adaptation of IT, which we reviewed here). The novel Gerald’s Game is known primarily for one especially gruesome scene (which, yes, does play out in shudder-inducing, explicit detail in the film), but its enduring strength is in the achingly brutal, introspective psychological horror resulting from Jessica’s deep-dive into past traumas in order to make sense of and survive her present deadly situation. Well, that, and the horrifying apparition who may or may not be death itself (very effectively portrayed in the film by Carel Struycken).
The film deals sensitively with material that could easily have become exploitative and tawdry. Mike Flanagan is a director experienced in portraying both adolescent trauma and its after-effects. Choices such as thoughtful and perceptive juxtaposition, doubling, skillful match cuts, and carefully-chosen colour schemes draw the audience fully into Jessica’s past and present, the visual clues reinforcing and building upon Flanagan and Jeff Howard’s lean and emotionally powerful script. The flashbacks to young Jessica’s (Chiara Aurelia) adolescent experiences are just as disturbing as the ordeal undergone by present-day Jessica, and may be triggering to those who have suffered childhood abuse.
While all performances in the film are astoundingly good (keep an eye out for Flanagan’s partner and star of Hush, Kate Siegal, in a supporting role), Carla Gugino stands out as a veritable goddess. Her Jessicas (yes, plural — watch the film, it makes sense) are tough and vulnerable, broken and benevolent. Ms. Gugino deserves an Oscar nomination at the very least, and, for god’s sake, let’s have the mainstream film community start recognizing the brilliance of Mike Flanagan while we’re at it. Gerald’s Game builds on the incredible work he has done in Hush, Oculus, and his other films. If he hasn’t yet reached the peak of his craft with Gerald’s Game, then we are due for some unbelievably incredible film-making from him in the future.
Gerald’s Game is now streaming on Netflix.
Rating: 10 out of 10 Kobe steaks.