The Year of Stephen King continues apace with the arrival of “Gerald’s Game,” one of two Netflix-produced King adaptations (along with “1922”) unveiled last weekend at Austin’s genre-skewing Fantastic Fest. But here’s the rub: It’s entirely possible that this particular adaptation may be best appreciated — or, to paraphrase the late George Michael, viewed without prejudice — by people who have never read King’s 1992 bestseller of the same title.
Writer-director Mike Flanagan (“Ouija: Origin of Evil”) and co-writer Jeff Howard have proficiently streamlined and simplified a novel that, according to the production notes, even Flanagan once considered “unfilmable.” But the end result of their reimagining might very well produce more complaints than usual from disapproving King fans that, really, the book was a lot better.
To be fair, the movie tends to adhere quite effectively to the bare bones of King’s original plot. At a secluded lake house — the kind of place where no one in the surrounding area can hear you scream — Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) are squabbling about whether they should continue a kinky sex game when Gerald inconveniently expires.
Unfortunately, this leaves Jessie handcuffed to their bed, unable to free herself, increasingly frantic and dehydrated, and haunted by voices inside her head that sound more hectoring than helpful. Even more unfortunately, a famished abandoned dog wanders into the lake house through an open door, feasts on Gerald’s corpse and gradually expresses an appetite for fresher meat.
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And oh, by the way, Jessie is visited by a gruesome stranger who may be a hallucination “made of moonlight,” or something much, much worse.
Right from the start, Flanagan and Howard put their own spin on the material by making Jessie far less culpable for her husband’s untimely demise, cleverly implying that Gerald died of a heart attack because he popped one too many little blue pills before playtime. But that is a relatively minor adjustment compared to what could be a deal-breaker for fans of the novel: Instead of having the voices inside Jessie’s head belong to people from her past, or manifestations of her own tortured psyche, the movie has the shackled heroine encouraged and harassed by two on-screen supporting characters: the unquiet spirit of Gerald (who’s understandably upset that the dog is treating his corpse as a blue-plate special) and a vividly imagined, no-B.S. version of Jessie herself.
Think of it this way: King’s novel could be done as a radio play (much like Lindsay Crouse’s exceptional audiobook performance of “Gerald’s Game”), while the film adaptation could, with only minor tinkering and excisions, be reconstituted as a stage play (much like the recent Broadway incarnation of King’s “Misery”).
Taken strictly on its own terms, the film adaptation is an arrestingly and sometimes excruciatingly suspenseful psychological thriller lightly garnished with horror-movie flourishes — including one especially squirm-inducing instance of copious bloodletting — and driven by a compelling lead performance that is entirely worthy of a description too often misapplied to lesser work: tour de force.
Gugino adroitly intertwines varying threads of panic, rage, resentment, gallows humor and long-simmering resentment while Jessie struggles to remain sane, or least tightly focused, while pulling double duty: anxiously searching for any means of escape, and reluctantly taking stock of the life she has lived, as well as the emotions she has repressed, up to the moment Gerald clicked on the cuffs.
Flanagan and Howard do not always display a light touch when it comes to stressing symbolism, Freudian and otherwise, but Gugino imparts compelling emotional truth into scenes that suggest (and, near the end, bluntly announce) that Jessie was shackled long before reaching the lake house, by her marriage and acquiescence to Gerald and, years earlier, by suppressed memories of sexual violation. As a result, she now has more than one set of chains to break.
Chiara Aurelia is affectingly credible as the 12-year-old Jessie, who appears in flashbacks and elsewhere. And Henry Thomas remains nimbly poised on a knife edge between manipulative predator and self-loathing weakling as Jessie’s father, arguably his meatiest role since he was cast as a dying but defiant Hank Williams in 2011’s “The Last Ride.”
But Bruce Greenwood is the one who emerges as the movie’s most valuable supporting player, playing Gerald as a sly S.O.B. who is by turns shockingly witty, appallingly misogynistic and unflappably condescending while engaged in posthumous wordplay with Jessie and her tougher-talking doppelganger.
Credit cinematographer Michael Fimognari and production designer Patrick M. Sullivan Jr. for enhancing the claustrophobic feel of scenes inside the lake-house bedroom. It must be acknowledged that, during these scenes, Gugino looks very attractive in the slinky silk slip that Maddie purchased as suitable attire for sexual hijinks. But it must also be acknowledged that the filmmakers utilize that purchase as a plant that pays off in an ingeniously nerve-wracking sequence that even Alfred Hitchcock might have envied.