When it comes to Stephen King adaptations, there are a whole lot that miss the mark when they could have landed it. While everyone basks in the glory that is IT (rightfully so, mind you), King’s faithful remember oh so many of the misses (Under the Dome, we hardly wanted you). Knowing Gerald’s Game – a very divisive book on its own – was being adapted into a Netflix original film caused my “Freak Out” meter to hit an 11. If ever there was a King property to get wrong, this was it.
Gerald’s Game begins with long wed couple Gerald and Jessie (Bruce Greenwood and Carla Gugino) arriving at their remote beach house, anticipating a relationship sparking weekend of relaxation and debauchery. Kickstarting their wilting flame, Gerald pops a little blue pill and proceeds to handcuff Jessie to the bed, each arm secured to the opposing bedpost. What briefly appears to be “Fifty Shades of Beachfront Property” quickly hits the beam after Jessie demands to be unshackled, and Gerald drops dead of a heart attack. Trapped alone and firmly secured, Jessie finds herself fighting inner demons, a savage stray dog, and an ominous presence – all in the name of her own survival. And after enduring all 103 minutes of Gerald’s Game, I can assure you of this: not only did director Mike Flanagan nail this story, he delivered it better than even Stephen King did.
WHAT SACRILEGE! Yea, I get it. That’s blasphemy or heresy or one of those “y” words. Truth be told, Gerald’s Game wasn’t a great book. A strong central conceit accompanied by languished pacing led to a fairly ho-hum read until the BAZINGA of an ending. Mike Flanagan is a director who understands the inner workings of a thriller, and as his earlier film Hush proved, he excels at isolated locations with strong female protagonists. His approach to building tension, piece-by-piece, and never rushing to a conclusion harkens back to the era of Hitchcock. Holding onto everything that clicked in the novel, Flanagan brings a very difficult and salacious story to the screen by keeping his audience at bay with his very compact, yet focused, brand of storytelling.
While Flanagan gets much of the credit for spreading out the thrills and Bruce Greenwood delivers his effortless charm in spades, Carla Gugino gets ALL of the credit for kicking Gerald’s Game to life. Gugino is an actress who has toyed with vulnerability over the years, but her career is firmly entrenched in confident femme fatales or sexed-up antiheroes. Rarely has she been entrusted with the opportunity to explore the depth of a character wrestling with childhood trauma or marital malaise, and after her performance here, I have to ask; why the hell not?!
Carla Gugino is a revelation as Jessie, which is a bit insane to verbalize about an actress with a near 30-year career. It’s the simple truth. Jessie is a damaged woman who slowly begins to struggle with her own psyche, while understanding she must unlock her inner soul to escape certain death, as well as combat psychological manifestations of Gerald, the boogeyman and even herself. Throughout this film, Gugino’s Jessie is run through a gamut of emotional brutality. And like Babe Ruth, with every scene she just points her bat and knocks it out of the park.
There are many mysteries to unpack in Gerald’s Game, and those will not be disclosed here. Instead, leave this review knowing that you will be treated to a thrilling film with a heart-stopping ending – yes, King readers, Flanagan pulls it off – and features a breakout performance from an actress who should have been afforded this opportunity years ago. A more apt title would simply be Carla’s Game.
Starring Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas
Screenplay by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard
Directed by Mike Flanagan