Gerald's Game - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
If you were to make a Mount Rushmore of directors who have adapted Stephen King's work for both the big and small screen it would include Rob Reiner, Frank Darabont, Mick Garris and (recent addition) Mike Flanagan. Reiner's adaptations of 'The Body' (which became known as Stand By Me) and 'Misery' successfully showcased the range of King's work to a wider audience and were so successful that Reiner set up the production company Castle Rock Entertainment (named after the fictional town from many of King's novels) which produced a number of adaptations of the author's work. Two of these (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) were helmed by Frank Darabont and were not huge hits but garnered critical praise. In doing so they further expanded audiences to King's non horror work before being broken by his adaptation of 'The Mist' (complete with a harrowing finale that King wished he came up with). Mick Garris undoubtedly belongs there in the wake of his highly popular (and still beloved) mini series of 'The Stand'. He carried the banner for King's work by directing several adaptations for both TV and film when they weren't as popular with studios. The latest in this illustrious list is Mike Flanagan who is fearless in his adaptation choices. It is almost like he looked at a list of every King story and picked the least cinematic/most difficult to adapt and said no problem with the likes of and his upcoming adaptation of 'The Dark Tower'. But the first of these ventures into King's world was with the 1992 novel, 'Gerald's Game'.
Director: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Carel Struycken, Chiara Aurelia, Henry Thomas
Written by: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Produced by: Trevor Macy
Cinematography by: Michael Fimognari
Original Score by: The Newton Brother
A couple tries to spice up their marriage in a remote lake house. After the husband dies unexpectedly, the wife is left handcuffed to their bed frame and must fight to survive and break free.
In the summer of 1990 Stephen King decided to take a break from writing to recharge his batteries before developing his next novel 'Dolores Claiborne' but inspiration struck and it couldn't be ignored. As with 'Misery' the idea came to him in a dream on a flight to New York. In his slumber the image of a woman handcuffed to a bed came to him. Speaking about the idea in his book 'On Writing' King said, "Oh, that's wonderful, what a great idea. I must write it. Not because it was a whole story but because it was one of these situations that's so interesting that you figure if you start to write it, things will suggest themselves". In writing the novel King wanted to make the main character's escape seem authentic so he enlisted the help of his son Joe to see if the character's past as a gymnast would help her to escape. He tied the future best selling novelist to the bed with a scarf to the bemusement of his wife finding out he couldn't get out so the resolution to the novel wasn't going to be as straightforward as he hoped it would be. He eventually came up with a solution and the novel was released in 1992.
Years after its publication the rights to the novel (which was thought to be unfilmable) sat with King who refused to relinquish them. He was highly impressed with Rob Reiner's work on 'Misery' seeing how a (practically) one location adaptation of his book could not only work but be a huge success. In a 2002 interview linked to the book 'Hollywood's Stephen King' the author expressed his desire to hold onto the rights of the novel as he said, "I'm thinking eventually, if I get a chance in my retirement, I want to write the screenplay for Gerald's Game." However his endorsement of Mike Flanagan's 2016 home invasion horror 'Hush' piqued the interest of Flanagan in adapting the 1992 novel which he was a huge fan of as he stated in an interview with The Independent in 2017. "Half my life I've been trying to make this movie." Using the clout garnered from the success of 'Hush', Flanagan was able to get the rights of the novel through his ties with Netflix.
The film opens with an overhead shot of Jessie (played by Carla Gugino) and Gerald (played by Bruce Greenwood) packing their respective bags for a getaway with the soothing tones of Sam Cooke's 'Bring it on Home to Me' playing over the scene in a sly bit of misdirection. It ends with an ominous zoom in on Gerald placing a set of handcuffs into his bag immediately injecting a sense of danger and dread into the film. This scene is then followed up with the couple's drive to their holiday home by the lake which perfectly sums up the dynamic between Gerald and Jessie. Through their actions and dialogue it is clear that Gerald has lustful intentions for the weekend with his borderline predatory actions whilst Jessie tries to underplay them by batting them away in hope for something romantic which can be seen in the way she takes in the scenery of the location. By showing his cards this early Flanagan sets audience expectations allowing him to dive deeper into the character's backgrounds.
It doesn't take long for them to get settled before Gerald guides Jessie to the bedroom where he cuffs her to the bed for a bit of roleplay to spice up their stagnating marriage. What is clear from the get go is that it is all in service of what Gerald wants as he doesn't care about how uncomfortable Jessie is. Even when she clearly says no to it all Gerald gets rough and tries to initiate a rape fantasy which is difficult to watch and all the more harrowing when Jessie's past is brought to light. In their argument Gerald suffers a fatal heart attack and collapses off the bed.
In the role of Jessie, Carla Gugino delivers an absolute powerhouse of a performance that stands as the best in her career. The physicality behind it is apparent throughout as the exertions her character goes through and the decline in her health keeps the stakes at an all time high throughout. At a deeper level she does some phenomenal work from an emotional point of view. The scars from her past are all too apparent in the way she conveys Jessie's vulnerability right from the start before she becomes trapped. Even little things like the tone of her voice and the subtleties in her movements go a long way in making it truly great. It is all the more remarkable when you hear of how the production wasn't exactly clicking until Gugino landed on set. Both herself and Flanagan reveal in a commentary track recorded with The Kingcast podcast that Bruce Greenwood wasn't too sure of everything until a rehearsal with Gugino. He was highly impressed with what she brought to the role. In the pantheon of female performances in King adaptations, Gugino's work here is right up there with Kathy Bates in 'Misery' or Dee Wallace in 'Cujo'.
Opposite Gugino, Bruce Greenwood is excellent. He perfectly conveys a slimeball who is locked into the infallibility of his own actions (past and present). There is a confident swagger in the way he puts Jessie down to the point where she buys into what he is saying like a cynical demon on her shoulder. In terms of King's rogue gallery of villains he is one of the very worst human ones with no supernatural abilities due to his manipulative manner, which works so well thanks to Greenwood's commitment to the part.
One of the main reasons 'Gerald's Game' was considered to be an unfilmable novel for so long was the fact that once Gerald dies, the majority of the novel is told from the perspective of Jessie's inner monologue. The genius of Flanagan's approach in his adaptation is how he pushes Jessie's inner thoughts and feelings outwards by having them manifest in front of her as she talks with a hallucination of Gerald and another version of herself whilst she is cuffed to the bed. It also speaks volumes about her relationship with her husband as they speak of
their past and how he was emotionally manipulative and abusive. Even in her escape attempts he constantly puts her down with snide remarks whilst the other version of herself is more supportive and tries to empower her over Gerald's comments of dissent. Another notable feature of Flanagan's direction is how he does a brilliant job at keeping the viewer engaged by keeping the camera moving.
Whilst facing the prospect of a slow death with her panic strewn thoughts Jessie faces some more immediate danger in the form of a hungry stray dog who feeds on Gerald's corpse at the foot of the bed. What is worse is her visit from the horrifying Moonlight Man (played by Carel Struycken). The first night of her ordeal the lanky deformed figure emerges from the shadows to show Jessie his box of bones and other trinkets, terrifying her and the audience alike as we question if he is real or a nightmare. Gerald tells Jesse her supposed hallucination is Death who has come for her but he is more of a physical manifestation of the toxicity of the men in Jessie's life including Gerald and her father Tom (played by Henry Thomas).
Whilst the Moonlight Man is a physical horror Jessie has to deal with it is nothing in comparison to the emotional horrors of her past which come to light through a flashback to a family trip when she was a child. Alone with her father as they watch an eclipse by the lake, an emotional light in her life is shrouded in shadow as her father molests her betraying the trust she had in the one man she thought she could rely on. The red glow of the eclipse during this scene highlights how this moment is a murder of Jessie's innocence as it changes her life forever for the worse. The aftermath finds Jessie's father passing his guilt from what he has done onto her as a means of buying her silence. It is horrific and extremely difficult to watch but also it is a testament to the commitment in Thomas' performance which took a heavy toll on the actor between takes. He is a monster who is every bit as horrific as Pennywise or Randall Flagg, as he is supposed to be protective and loving.
By delving into the past Jessie discovers a means at which she can escape leading to what is easily the most memorable scene in the film, the degloving. During a family meal in the aftermath of the eclipse, Young Jessie shatters a glass of milk in her hand in reaction to her father putting his hand on her mother's pregnant stomach, knowing what happened to her could happen to her unborn sibling. The cut to her hand tells Jessie that the only way out is to cut part of her hand in order to slip it out of the cuffs like a glove. The moment itself is a masterclass in sound design as the glass slicing into Jessie's hand as she screams in panic is almost unbearable but then the phenomenal prosthetics used are so visceral and realistic that you almost have to watch it through your fingers. It was so effective that there were reports of a person fainting at that moment during a screening at Fantastic Fest.
Jessie makes her escape and is rescued but she is left with not just the physical surface scars but the deeper emotional scars, not only from her ordeal but further into her past. She is still haunted by the Moonlight Man who appears in her dreams but she finds out his true identity is a serial killer with acromegaly, Raymond Andrew Joubert who has just been captured. Realising her visions were reality she decides to confront him as he is being sentenced in court. As she confronts him she sees her father and Gerald in him but her trepidation fades with a smirk as she utters, "you're so much smaller than I remember" giving her some closure so she can finally move on with her life. Many believe this epilogue was too on the nose but given Jessie's journey and understanding her past means this kind of catharsis is a necessity in completing her arc, making for a fitting conclusion to the film.
For what was supposed to be an impossible novel to adapt, Mike Flanagan seems to pull it off with ease. It is clear he has a deep love not just for this novel but for King in general as he taps into the core themes from the book. It stands as the perfect example of how you shoot a one location film with a small cast as the viewer is constantly engaged and tense over Jessie's situation. This is mostly down to Carla Gugino's performance as she knocks it out of the park with one of the greatest performances in any King adaptation under the steady stewardship of Mike Flanagan. We can't wait to see Flanagan's next King adaptation.
- Joseph McElroy