Movie Review : Gerald's Game (2017)
I barely remember people reading Stephen King's novel Gerald's Game in the nineties. It was before my time and it mysteriously dropped from the face of the Earth around 1997. I forgot it existed until Netflix announced an adaptation conveniently scheduled three weeks after the theater release of It (which is now the highest grossing horror movie of all-time, by the way). Gerald's Game is getting a second life in 2017, courtesy of Mike Flanagan. If you don't know who he is, it's because he directed movies you haven't heard of or don't want to remember like Hush or Ouija: Origin of Evil. Gerald's Game is not a dud, though. Far from it. It's smart, understated and it scared the pants out of me in unexpected ways.
Gerald's Game is the story of Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), who have been slowly falling out of love for one another. Gerald organizes a getaway to their remote lake house in order to reignite the flame...and to live-out an unhealthy rape fantasy he's been fostering. It involved handcuffing his wife to the bedposts and fucking her while she pretends to call for him. Except Gerald has a heart attack about ten minutes into that disaster of an idea, leaving Jessie alone in the woods, handcuffed and absolutely helpless. So, Jessie does what any sensible person would in that context: she has a mental breakdown. She will have to face the embodiment of her deepest fear if she wants to survive, because nobody's coming for her.
The metaphor of Gerald's Game is quite simple and in-your-face: Jessie Burlingame is chained by events in her past, making her helpless against the present. It is even stated at least twice in the movies that Jessie was put in metaphorical handcuffs long before Gerald did. That is why it's the past she faces while chained to her bed and not the present. The iteration of Gerald symbolizes her deepest fears and her doppelganger is her survival instinct and sense of self or what Aristotle liked to call the "hypokeimenon". The part in Jessie that didn't break in the childhood trauma she experienced and that will birth a new "her" if she survives. Gerald's Game is an admirably clever and moving minimalist survival thriller until it takes a sharp turn into the downright TERRIFYING. And it's all for the best, I swear.
So, how can I discuss the batshit crazy last twenty minutes of Gerald's Game without spoiling anything? Well, let's begin with this: Jessie needs to kill her current passive, resigned housewife self in order to survive her ordeal and she (very metaphorically) does in one of the most efficient scenes of body horror I've seen in some time. The use of gore needs to be contextual in order to be effective and Mike Flanagan understands that. Jessie is constantly confronted to the putrefying body of her husband, but it's nothing compared what she ends up doing to herself to survive. The scene is both stomach turning and life-affirming. It's a death and a birth at the same time. I've often chastised Stephen King for writing dopey, helpless female characters (Cujo, The Shining) but it's not the case in Gerald's Game. Jessie Burlingame is absolutely enthralling.
I'll stop here. There are more surprises packed in the last twenty minutes of Gerald's Game but I'll leave you discovering them with the same awe and horror than I did. It's not the most visually stimulating movie and sometimes the lack of budget cruelly showed, but it's smart and disciplined enough not to force the visually taxing moments on the viewer. I love movies like Gerald's Game which are smart, but earnest and accessible. There might be hope for Mike Flanagan in the horror movie business after all. I highly encourage you to watch Gerald's Game this October. Not only it's a topical viewing (the release timing was way too fucking brilliant), but it's a horror movie that'll linger long after you're done with it. I'm not afraid to call it one of the best Stephen King adaptations even if I haven't read the novel. Not many movies could capture the spirit of his work without looking silly and this one does. Perhaps one of my ten favorite movies of 2017.