‘Gerald’s Game’ Review: Carla Gugino Shines in a Stunning Stephen King Adaptation
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.
Gerald’s Game thrives when it leans into Jessie’s psychology, into the layers of repression and oppression that have led her to this moment and the ways this ultimate battle of will drags up the strength that was always hiding in her. Gugino is no bones about it utterly exquisite in the role. She’s deserved a meaty part like this for decades, and now that she’s got one, she bares her teeth and digs in, excavating Jessie with nuance or dramatic flourish, depending on what the moment calls for.
However, if Gerald’s Game is a drama first, Flanagan never loses sight of the fact that he’s making a horror movie too. The Space Cowboy is one hell of an unsettling sight to behold, the hungry mutt is a primal ferocious force of fear, but book reads will know full well that the horrors of King’s novels are not just psychological, but the perilous physical toll this experience takes on Jessie. There’s a climactic scene that is so disgusting it’s nigh impossible to read without putting the book down and in keeping, the film’s big moment of gore is a stomach-wrenching moment of body horror that had the crowd yelling and groaning and unison and even had this hardened horror fan peeking through her fingers. Fleshy, Yikes, y’all. It is nasty, nasty business and the effects are on point.
The film’s ending will earn some ire, and it’s deserved. King has never been good at sticking the landing and Flanagan follows the book’s final chapters almost to a tee. It puts a bow on the film that’s far too neatly tied. However, it also completes a stunning journey of self-discovery as we watch one woman so completely reclaim her power from the men who have haunted her, in whatever guise they take. There’s silliness to it, but there’s also strength. It’s unfortunate that Flannagan hews so closely to King’s work in the final moments as he makes a few fantastic subversions of the source material throughout, but his love for the material, and more importantly for his lead character, is manifest even if his reverence here is misguided. Flannagan has said he carried Gerald’s Game with him to pitch meetings for years. This is a film he has wanted to make since he was a teenager. Gerald’s Game is the impossible adaptation, but Flanagan has proven himself one hell of an idea man with his string of horror
Flanagan says he carried Gerald’s Game with him to pitch meetings for years. This is a film he has wanted to make since he was a teenager. Gerald’s Game is the impossible adaptation, but Flanagan has proven himself one hell of an idea man with his string of horror hits, and finding a way to make Gerald’s Game work is his most impressive feat yet. This is an excellent King adaptation. It’s an excellent psychological horror that investigates hard topics without flinching and without exploiting. It’s soulful piece with its heart and its head firmly in the right place; a rejection of toxic masculinity, oppressive silence, and cycles of abuse. It’s an embrace of female strength, outright, and it’s as moving as it is consummately thrilling.
Gerald’s Game will be released on Netflix, September 29. It premiered at Fantastic Fest.