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GERALD’S GAME Has a Simple Premise, Phenomenal Execution (Review)

GERALD’S GAME Has a Simple Premise, Phenomenal Execution (Review)

For having 40+ feature films based on his writing, a great many of Stephen King‘s stories have long been declared “unfilmable.” Sure, The Dark Tower is almost too sprawling and complex for any movie to hold (though they tried), but his writing can also be so intimate, so focused that a movie version wouldn’t have the proper scope or intensity. One of these has always been King’s 1992 suspense novel Gerald’s Game, which ostensibly is about one character in one location. Getting that movie made has long been the passion project of horror director Mike Flanagan, and it’s one of the best King adaptations ever made.

Flanagan made his name directing smaller horror films that delivered on tension and scares without relying on huge budgets. I’ve been a big fan of his for a while, after his film Oculus about a haunted mirror sufficiently shot chills up the back of me, and I was incredibly impressed by his movie Hush about a deaf woman menaced by a home-invader/murderer. Hush proved a success on Netflix and he was able to get Gerald’s Game off the ground, in an inconceivably impressive way. It’s a movie less about story than it is about execution and it’s truly chilling, with some powerhouse performances.

Jessie (Carla Gugino) is heading for a romantic weekend with her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), a weekend that’s meant to help their flagging relationship. Gerald wants to try something a little kinkier than they’re used to and he brings heavy duty handcuffs to fasten Jessie to the bed. The attempt doesn’t go well and ends with Gerald having a massive heart attack and dying on the floor, while Jessie is stuck and unable to reach anything, or her husband. Gerald’s death is not a spoiler, it’s merely the inciting incident, because Jessie has to keep herself sane while she goes through all the emotions and growing insanity that comes from being chained to a bed, in a house in the middle of nowhere, with the front door open, and a hungry stray dog stalking around outside.

While this could easily be a Tales from the Crypt episode, where the “oh shit” moment is the ending, it’s not, and as with King’s novel, Flanagan’s movie takes us deep inside Jessie’s psyche and her own self-doubts. These self doubts manifest in the form of Gerald, who taunts her about how stupid she is for having gotten into this mess. But she–with flawless hair and makeup–also finds a voice of her inner strength, urging her to stay calm and use her head. As she drifts further into madness, she begins reliving childhood trauma, focusing on a particular incident with a grown up (played by Henry Thomas), and the possible specter of death nibbling at her toes.

It’s astonishing just how effective this movie is. The bulk of the movie finds Gugino doing double duty handcuffed to the bed, more and more dehydrated, sore, and insane, and standing over herself, telling her to hang on, all the while Greenwood hovers like a sadist constantly reminding her that the dog is probably going to eat her, if death himself doesn’t get her first. Both actors are absolutely fantastic, and give performances the likes of which we haven’t gotten to see from these very accomplished actors.

And yet, despite the fact that this is mainly a two-hander with some flashbacks thrown in, Flanagan never makes it feel like you’re watching a stage play. The editing is frenetic and the shots are economic but effective. He knows how to set up dread and make you feel like you’re stuck with Jessie in those shackles, both physicaly and emotionally. The truly upsetting visage of the Moonlight Man lurking in the shadows adds some ghostly scares to the worsening dread.

Gerald’s Game is an excellent piece of cinema, and proves that story and performance can overcome even the most “unfilmable” source material. Survival isn’t pretty, and it’s not fun, but it is possible, if someone can overcome fears. It’s a pretty universal story, we just needed a filmmaker and actors brave enough to bring it to the screen.

4.5 out of 5 wrist-bruising burritos

Images: Netflix

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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