The year is not even two weeks old but it already has one electrifyingly brilliant film to its credit.
Mike Flanagan reportedly carried around a copy of “Gerald’s Game” to meetings because it was the Stephen King book he dreamed of adapting since he was a teenager. This is arguably a sign of insanity. Not only is it considered one of King’s lesser works, but it takes place almost entirely in inner monologue and memory, with its only major character handcuffed to a bed. In other words, it always felt deeply impossible to adapt into a film, and that’s not even getting into the downright silly ending. And yet Flanagan used the deserved credibility garnered from the success of “Oculus,” “Hush” and “Ouija: Origin of Evil” to finally make his teenage dreams come true. The result is further proof that this filmmaker is for real. He has made just about the best version of “Gerald’s Game” that could result from not majorly overhauling the book, and delivered a film, premiering today on Netflix, that stands as the best King adaptation of the year so far (which includes the disappointing “The Dark Tower” and shockingly huge “It,” although the upcoming “1922” could dethrone it in a few weeks.)
A man smiles lovingly as he handcuffs his wife to a bed at a remote vacation home. The man is a successful attorney named Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), and his wife is named Jessie (Carla Gugino). We can tell immediately that not everything is going smoothly in this union, but it’s the kind of marital speedbump that can hopefully be overcome with some Sam Cooke and some Viagra. Oh, and maybe a little role-playing. With an early overhead shot, Flanagan has revealed that Gerald packed handcuffs, and he’s eager to use them. When he starts becoming excited over the fact that no one could hear a handcuffed Jessie and covers her mouth with his hand, she tries to call it off. She doesn’t feel sexy; she feels objectified. “Uncuff me and we can talk,” she says. He replies, “What if I won’t?” That loosely-veiled threat doesn’t pay out, however, because Gerald has a heart attack, dropping dead right on top of her. She pushes his body off, and realizes the sheer horror of her predicament, handcuffed to a bed, too far away for anyone to hear her screams.
What might seem goofy or even silly is played for terror instantly as Gugino conveys the multiple horrors of a rape fantasy gone wrong, dead husband, and a trapped woman—all within minutes. Flanagan trusts Gugino completely, keeping us locked with Jessie as long as conceivably possible. He also gets around the inner monologue problem of the book by allowing a lot of that exposition to come as an increasingly-hallucinating Jessie having “conversations” with a now-mobile Gerald and even a tougher version of herself. The scenes between Gugino and Greenwood are phenomenally written as the actress plays the realism of her predicament and Greenwood recognizes that he’s playing an exaggerated version of Gerald, the one his wife would envision. The idea that Jessie would have visions of a devil and angel on her shoulder to get her out of her situation is interesting enough but even more so when you consider that the angel is a tougher version of herself and the devil is her now-dead husband.
Flanagan has become more and more confident as a craftsman with each film. Here he knows that less is more, never resorting to the techniques that a lot of filmmakers would have used to make up for the lack of story. Instead of loud jump scares or quick cuts, he pulls out score for most of the film and goes with long takes, putting us in the room with Jessie and her husband’s body. We only leave that space when absolutely necessary, for an essential flashback that adds deeper subtext to this story, revealing that Jessie has a dark past she once buried but that could now be the key to saving her life. It’s an incredibly well-made film, and Flanagan gets the best performances he’s directed yet from Gugino and Greenwood—it’s great to see them get such juicy roles.
Any diehard King fan will tell you that the author’s biggest problem is endings. For years, it was almost a joke that King didn’t know how to wrap up even his best books. His ending for “Gerald’s Game” is atrocious, and you’d be better off turning this off about ten minutes before the credits and just imagining what happens. I’ll say this—he does about as good a job with King’s ending as I think he possibly could have, even finding a neat visual trick in the closing scenes that helps tie Jessie’s story together thematically. Still, it’s remarkable that Flanagan didn’t decide to completely alter the twisty ending, but it shows how loyal he was to bringing the challenges of this novel to the big screen intact.
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