Film Review: ‘Gerald’s Game’

Carla Gugino gives a tour-de-force performance in an arresting psychological thriller based on Stephen King's 1992 novel.

Mike Flanagan
Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Chiara Aurelia, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Carel Struycken.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3748172/

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.

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.

Film Review: 'Gerald's Game'

Reviewed at Fantastic Fest, Austin, Sept. 24, 2017. Running time: 103 MIN.

Production: A Netflix release and presentation of an Intrepid Pictures production. Producer: Trevor Macy. Executive producers: D. Scott Lumpkin, Ian Bricke, Matt Levin.

Crew: Director: Mike Flanagan. Screenplay: Flanagan, Jeff Howard, based on the novel by Stephen King. Camera (color): Michael Fimognari. Editor: Flanagan. Music: The Newton Brothers.

With: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Chiara Aurelia, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Carel Struycken.

More Film

  • The Lion King

    Film News Roundup: PETA Sponsors Rescued Lion in Jon Favreau's Name

    In today’s film news roundup, PETA honors Jon Favreau for “The Lion King,” “Tigers Are Not Afraid” gets a theatrical release, a Kirk Franklin biopic is in development and “The Sixth Sense” gets an anniversary showing in Philadelphia. HONOR The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is sponsoring a rescued lion to honor director [...]

  • Tokyo Director-in-Focus-at-Japan-Now

    Nobuhiko Obayashi set as Japanese Director in Focus at Tokyo Film Festival

    Indie director, Nobuhiko Obayashi will be feted as the director in focus at the Japan Now section of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The festival will give a world premiere to his “Labyrinth of Cinema.” Supporting his art by shooting commercials, Obayashi is an indie whose dreamy works have influenced numerous other directors in [...]

  • Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Movie

    Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Thriller 'Unhinged' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jimmi Simpson will play a key role in “Unhinged,” Variety has learned. He joins an impressive cast that includes Oscar-winner Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius. Solstice Studios is producing the psychological thriller, which is currently filming in New Orleans. “Unhinged” centers on a woman named Rachel (Pistorius), who leans on her horn at the wrong [...]

  • David Crosby

    David Crosby Says New Documentary 'Remember My Name' Is Like 'Being Naked in Public’

    “It’s not easy. It’s hard being naked in public,” David Crosby, the legendary troubadour of classic rock, reflected at Tuesday night’s New York City premiere of “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” “I don’t know what to do here. There’s no guitars, no drums,” he laughed. Directed by newcomer A.J. Eaton and produced by the legendary [...]

  • Javier Bardem Dune

    Javier Bardem in Talks to Play King Triton in Disney's 'Little Mermaid'

    Javier Bardem is in talks to play King Triton in Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid.” Halle Bailey will portray the Ariel, a mermaid princess who dreams of being a human, while Melissa McCarthy is playing her evil aunt Ursula. Harry Styles is also in early talks to play Prince Eric. “The Little Mermaid” [...]

  • UglyDolls

    STX Tries to Put Flops Behind It as It Searches for Star Executive, Fresh Capital

    After a series of film flops and an aborted initial public offering, STX Entertainment is battling mounting skepticism that it can survive in an increasingly unforgiving movie business. As it hustles to find $500 million in fresh capital, the company, which operates in the red according to financial disclosures, is simultaneously hoping to attract a [...]

  • Ryan Simpkins

    Ryan Simpkins Joins Fox-Disney's 'Fear Street' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Ryan Simpkins has joined Fox-Disney’s second installment of 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment’s “Fear Street” trilogy, based on the novels by R.L. Stine. Leigh Janiak is helming all three films. Previously announced cast includes Gillian Jacobs, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Kiana Madeira, Olivia Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content