Gerald’s Game has a scene in it that will be talked about for a long time. It is hard to watch, and afterwards you just feel nothing but emptiness and sadness at its conclusion. No, I’m not talking about the hand scene. That one’s gruesome (we will get there), but there are monsters at work in this film much worse than the Monnlight Man.
Based off the novel of the same name by Stephen King, we are introduced to Jessie (a game Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood). They are heading up to a secluded home to spend a weekend together, trying to find the spark in their marriage. After some setup scenes that pay off later (who doesn’t close their front door?!), we cut to the bedroom.
Jessie is waiting on the bed, as we come to understand they agreed to spice things up a bit, incorporating police-grade handcuffs into their foreplay. As Jessie becomes more uncomfortable. we notice Gerald getting weirdly agitated, and he goes into cardiac arrest. Falling to the floor, he dies, and Jessie is left handcuffed to the bed.
This is where the film really starts to take off for me. Instead of becoming a “how will she stay alive?” story, Jessie breaks down mentally. Her mind splinters off and she confronts old demons and her own mortality as thirst and the threat of a rabid dog threaten to end her life. All while she fights off two manifestations of her subconscious represented by herself and her now deceased husband.
It is a lot to take in for such a simple premise. But it works. There is tension in every scene, from something as simple as taking a pill to the gross climax. Quite a bit of that has to do with our two leads. Both are superb — Gugino, of course, has the lion’s share of the work here. Greenwood, though, has this sinister edge to him; it is very subtle at first, and right before he passes away, he unleashes it. And since that is the last version of him Jessie sees, it makes sense that he would be a complete jerk in her subconscious.
Gugino is a force of nature in this film. There are certain parts of the film where it feels like it ceases to be a performance for her and she has become Jessie. She really loses herself into everything. This is her movie all the way, and it is a real pleasure to watch someone give themselves over so much into the story that we no longer realize that we are watching a film.
Through her subconscious, we learn that Jessie was sexually abused by her father at a young age. She never dealt with it; her father manipulated her into keep it a secret like a coward. Through exhaustion and hallucination, Jessie goes through the process of bringing all of those memories to the forefront and uses them to get out of the sticky situation she finds herself in. And oh yeah, there is a crazy demon called the Moonlight Man waiting for her to die. The scene where she wakes up and he’s going to town on her feet is pretty jarring.
In a film that looks as gorgeous as this one does, it is even more jarring. Mike Flanagan and his cinematographer Micheal Fimognari sure know how to set the mood. I loved the way they disorient us with shadows and wide-angle shots. You can never be certain or what you are seeing in that room. And the way scenes linger and fester make the goings-on that much more sinister in nature. Especially during the flashback scenes with Jessie’s father and the abuse. The use of reds and darkness only serve to make us feel more helpless. It is completely soul-crushing.
Which brings us to the part I do have a problem with: the end. Going back to when Gerald’s Game was published, the ending is very divisive. While I will not go into to many details here, those of you who have read the book know what I am talking about. It doesn’t work for me — and I’m not talking about her escaping. That scene is harrowing and disgusting in all the right ways ( I am not the squeamish, but even I had to look away during the hand scene). No, I am talking about the very end, and how the story decides what to do about Moonlight Man. It feels too neat, and a little far-fetched, which is saying something.
But the ending gets a pass from me. Even with the wrap-up to the Moonlight Man, it leads to a great moment for Jessie as she walks into the literal sunset. Usually that kind of on-the-nose storytelling falls flat for me. But because of Gugino’s performance, it feels completely earned. She went to hell and back and the story owed it to her to let her have that moment.
Gerald’s Game is a great thriller that fans and non-fans of horror alike can enjoy. And it continues what maybe be the the best year of Stephen King adaptations we have ever seen.