Stephen King may be best known for killer clowns, Dark Towers, and his other sprawling epics of good and evil, but there’s a much more mundane type of menace you’ll find stamped across the pages of all King’s best works: toxic men. Corrupt men in power, bad husbands, and even worse fathers are threaded through King’s narratives at large, and few of his stories delve into the tricky subject matter so deeply as Gerald’s Game, a rich and thoughtful, if occasionally problematic, examination of abuse and the transformation from victim to survivor, all told through the inner monologue of a woman chained to a bed.
If you think that sounds unfilmable, you would be in good company. The novel was long considered impossible to adapt, but with the new Netflix original, Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil director Mike Flanagan has not only found clever ways of working around the structural challenges of King’s internally-driven text, he’s tapped into the vital current of empathy for assault survivors and the strength of those forged in the fire of abuse.
Carla Gugino stars as Jessie, a woman who absconds with her husband, Bruce Greenwood‘s Gerald, for a weekend retreat to a remote cabin where the duo intends to spice up their sex life with some light kink. Their spark is fading, their marriage in crisis — Gerald can’t get it up for his wife anymore, despite the fact that she’s so eager to please, and they haven’t touched each other in months. When they arrive, Jess slinks into a beautiful new baby blue slip while Gerald downs a baby blue pill and they get to it. Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bed, making sure to let her know these are the real deal and not some novelty cuffs that might break off if they “go at it too hard.” And he goes at it hard; Jessie expects a little restraint play but Gerald grabs her by the throat, calls himself daddy, and moves into a full-on rape fantasy, sending Jessie into panicked anger. They fight. They yell about divorce. And then Gerald clutches his chest and falls over dead, leaving his wife helpless and chained tight to the headboard.
In this moment, Flanagan and Gugino capture the sensation of pure helplessness with such precision, I was breathless with tears in my eyes. This is what it is to be a victim, to be left stranded and disenfranchised and endangered by the very people who are supposed to care for you. This is what it feels like to have no hope, no way out. Then they show you what it feels like to persist and endure, to survive. Once Gerald’s gone, Jessie is left alone with her wits and her strength, both of which begin to fade rapidly as the near inevitability of her death sinks in. There’s no one around to hear her, there’s no one coming, there’s no one to help Jess at all. So she must help herself.
The rest of the film plays out a journey through her mind and her trauma, including the abusive father who put her in figurative shackles long before she met her husband. Flanagan explores the parallels between the two men, the charm and manipulation, the ownership of female bodies, the dismissal of female worth. Greenwood is fantastic in his role, both as the living Gerald and then as the version of Gerald that starts speaking to Jessie after her sanity begins to crack. While Gerald speaks to her from the dead, voicing all her darkest fears, another image appears to help her survive — Jessie sees herself but stronger and unafraid. Together, the three of them work through the complicated layers of marital discord, the nature of consent, female oppression, and the role Jess has played in silencing her own truths.
The bulk of the film plays out through this series of conversations, which challenge and aide Jessie in her mission to survive. She remembers details that might help her make it out alive — and every detail matters. Getting water or rest become logistical feats, and Flanagan keeps the tension tight, keeping the audience aware that even a tiny misstep could be a death sentence. Then there’s the matter of the stray dog, a starving mutt who can’t help his hunger for the fresh meat laid at his feet, and of course the so-called “Space Cowboy” from King’s book — a figure of death who may or may not be real and visits Jessie at night. Flanagan comes up with an impressive and eerie design for the maybe monster, but his inclusion was never the strongest bit of King’s story and the same is decidedly true for the film.