Overview: Jessie and Gerald Burlingame’s romantic weekend turns suddenly horrific when Jessie finds herself alone, handcuffed to a bed, with no one around for miles. Netflix; 2017; Rated TV-MA; 103 minutes.
A Story Within a Story: Gerald’s Game premise is simple: A weekend getaway designed to reignite the flame that years of marriage have dulled. Its tools, almost cliché: a new slip for her, those ever-recognizable little blue pills for him, and handcuffs for a bit of excitement. But the intrinsic power of Gerald’s Game is not in its clever setup, but rather the underlying tension wrought by every uncomfortable interaction between Jessie and her husband. Gerald’s Game renders a rather mundane horror premise unique with its unflinching depiction of molestation, marital rape, and the ways in which women fail to trust their own instincts. This is not simply a film about a woman struggling to survive a weekend chained to a bed, but rather how a woman perseveres through a lifetime of peril caused by the very men who claim to love her.
Harrowing Reflections: Any victim of sexual abuse is likely to find Gerald’s Game eerily recognizable at points. When Gerald gropes his wife thigh on the car ride to their secluded getaway, Jessie reacts more like a woman on a terrible first date than a wife in love. She smiles and offers a consolatory kiss on his hand. She is unwilling, but apologetic, carefully navigating the reactions of Gerald. This response is the first of many that slowly build up to her outright protestations and eventual bargaining with Gerald. “If you won’t hurt me, I’ll play along,” she seems to concede at one point. It is a terribly familiar look at how women protect themselves in threatening situations, mitigating danger by seeking out the lesser of evils.
Carla Gugino truly shines as Jessie in these moments, as she depicts discomfort that heightens Bruce Greenwood’s performance as the predatory Gerald. The faltering smile, the apologetic laughter—each is complicated offer to both please and misdirect Gerald. So at the height of Jessie’s fear, as she shouts “Stop!” Gerald is convinced this is part of the game; he’s accustomed to his placating wife. It isn’t until she physically hurts him the spell is broken, presenting a rather ironic look at the inequity of physical play and how violence against women can be sexual, but against men it is not.
Filming the Un-Filmable: Director Mike Flanagan has called Gerald’s Game his dream project, but faced the challenge of bringing Stephen King’s seemingly un-filmable source material to the screen. Much of the tension and fear Jessie faces is internal, and the question over whether those threats are real or imagined only heightens challenges to filming—Jessie can’t venture out to investigate strange noises. She is limited to resurrecting old demons, repressed visions from her childhood of how she’s survived other traumas.
Flanagan and screenwriter Jeff Howard, who previously worked together on both Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil, overcome many of these challenges by bringing internal conversations to life. Gerald and a fiercer version Jessie reappear to guide Jessie—the real one—through her fight. Though she is literally a woman alone, talking to herself, the film never stagnates as a result of the clever adaptations Howard and Flanagan have made, converting internal monologue to dialogue with visions. Flanagan’s sharp camera angles also play an important role in the storytelling, as Jessie has to contend with what she can’t see as much as what she can confirm visually.
Overall: With Gerald’s Game, Flanagan shows his experience depicting different timelines and unreliable visions, as Oculus conquered many of these same filmmaking challenges. The internal fear drawn from Jessie is indeed the real strength of the film, as the stories of sexual abuse are powerfully depicted and realistically complicated. While the physical horror in the early portions of the film fail to provide any real scares, there is a rather stomach-churning sequence that is sure to linger after viewing. And though the conclusion does feel rather conveniently buttoned up, it is a minor contention given the otherwise powerful journey Jessie travels.