Gerald’s Game (2017)
Some games you play, some you survive.
A dirty weekend goes awry when middle-aged lawyer Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) drops dead of a heart attack as he’s about to sleep with his wife, Jessie (Carla Gugino). It’s particularly bad news for her, as they’ve been experimenting with a little light B&D action, and she’s handcuffed to the bed when Gerald passes. Alone in an isolated cabin, menaced by a feral dog who comes to snack on Gerald’s corpse, and haunted by traumas from her past, Jessie must discover heretofore untapped reserves of strength if she has any hope of survival.
Mike Flanagan was justly heaped with critical praise for his recent re-imagining of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House for Netflix, but it’s not his first rodeo for the streaming giant. In 2017 Flanagan brought Stephen King’s 1992 suspense thriller novel Gerald’s Game to the small screen, earning strong reviews from both the general critical community and the specialist horror press.
It’s easy to see why: anchored by a knock-out performance by Gugino, one of Flanagan’s go-to actors, Gerald’s Game is a tight, compelling, rather ruthless survival drama that commits to its stark premise but still manages to expand the scope of its story beyond its obvious physical confines.
It does this largely by having Jessie visited by manifestations of her subconscious, including a straight-talking version of herself and a remarkably callous incarnation of Gerald (and thank God — more Bruce Greenwood is always welcome, and he revels in embodying the sleazy, entitled, slightly cartoonish dream version of Gerald), who turn up to help her realize things she already knows in the former case, or to drown her in self-doubt and loathing in the latter. What could have been horribly mishandled actually works rather well as a narrative device, and although we’ve seen one-person-in-a-predicament films work with absolute fidelity to the physical reality of their situation (remember Ryan Reynolds in Buried (2010) and Tom Hardy in 2013’s Locke?) the approach used here lets both lead actors really sink their teeth into the material.
But Gerald’s Game is not just a gabfest. As the film progresses it gets gradually more disturbing, with a few rather graphic moments of wince-inducing gore — and one of the nastiest wounds I can recall seeing in a film ever! The movie also takes us back into Jessie’s past as she uncovers suppressed memories about her childhood during her ordeal. While it’s great to see Flanagan regulars Henry Thomas and Kate Siegel crop up as Jessie’s parents Tom and Sally, the flashback sequences are a) if anything, even more disturbing than some of the more violent scenes, and b) definitely venturing into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say, you may never look at Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) the same way again.
Gerald’s Game is a rock solid psychological thriller. No new frontiers of cinematic storytelling are discovered in the course of its lean 103-minute running time — it’s just a good drama told by a confident director in full command of his craft. What more could you want?
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson