By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard
If the successful compression of half the mammoth IT into a hit two-hour-plus movie wasn’t enough, here’s an adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most “unadaptable” novels that makes it look easy. A film of King’s 1992 GERALD’S GAME has long been a passion project for director Mike Flanagan, and he here applies the skills already amply demonstrated in ABSENTIA, OCULUS and OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL to the author’s largely interior drama, finding ways to make it successfully cinematic and just as gripping on the screen as it is on the page.
Debuting as a Netflix original tomorrow, GERALD’S GAME made its premiere at this month’s Fantastic Fest—a potentially problematic venue for it, given current events surrounding the fest and the movie’s focus on the emotional and sexual abuse of women. While assuring that the film is as disturbing as the material warrants, Flanagan shows a great sensitivity to his subject, cutting to the heart of predatory behavior without exploiting it. His partner in that achievement is Carla Gugino as Jessie, a woman who has long been treated as an object by men but is never regarded by the film as a simple victim. In a remarkable performance, Gugino lets us see how and why Jessie has let males take advantage of her, while gradually revealing a deep spirit of survival and resistance within her.
The movie opens with Jessie and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) driving to a remote country house for a getaway that will hopefully rekindle the spark between them. Unfortunately, Gerald’s idea of bonding is literal, and involves handcuffing Jessie to their bed, encouraging her to play helpless and referring to himself first as a stranger and then as “Daddy.” Flanagan (who scripted with regular collaborator Jeff Howard) has reimagined Gerald from King’s fat, balding shlub to a virile middle-ager played very well by Greenwood, reinforcing his status as an icon of predatory masculinity. His good looks don’t compensate for a bad attitude, and Jessie rebels against Gerald’s macho fantasy—only for him to have a heart attack and collapse to the floor before he can undo the cuffs.
With no neighbors or anyone else nearby, Jessie is now in quite a predicament, and GERALD’S GAME becomes a tense confinement thriller combined with a penetrating examination of its heroine’s psyche and troubled past. Taking many cues directly from the book while adding inspired visual and dramatic touches of his own (along with of-the-moment props like a cell phone and Viagra), Flanagan finds an extremely effective way to make Jessie’s internal monologues external, in ways that deepen our understanding of her relationships with the men in her life, past and present. As associations from the past help her figure out ways to stay alive in the present, the director builds intense scenes of small-scale suspense, while flashbacks to Jessie as a child (played by Chiara Aurelia) with her parents (Henry Thomas and Flanagan regular Kate Siegel) reveal the terrible secret that has shaped her psyche ever since.
Flanagan and Howard retain King’s use of a solar eclipse as a thematic element (preserving a bit of the author’s tie-in to DOLORES CLAIBORNE, published just months after GAME), and the director and cinematographer Michael Fimognari employ this device for beautifully eerie imagery. Throughout, GERALD’S GAME is impeccably crafted, from visuals to props (there are three credits for the design and fabrication of the bed alone), backed by an expressively subtle, jangling score by The Newton Brothers. Once things become more explicitly horrific in the later going, Robert Kurtzman and Creature Corps contribute excellent makeup effects; a key scene of physical damage is just as squirmy to watch as you might have imagined while reading it. On a similar, more personal note: Way back when I first pored through King’s novel, and wondered idly about the possibilities of a movie version, I thought Carel Struycken would be perfect for a small but significant part. And Flanagan, bless him, went and cast Struycken in that very role. Turns out the actor is indeed just right for it.