Some people have the worst timing. Take Gerald Burlingame, for example. He waits until he’s taken his wife, Jessie, to their remote mountain cabin and handcuffs her to their bed in preparation for a little kinky sex before he has a heart attack.
To make things worse, she has little hope for rescue, given that the staff is gone for the weekend. She screams for help, but from outside, we hear that her cries barely reach the end of the driveway of the thickly wooded property, let alone their nearest neighbors a mile and a-half away.
But that’s not all. As Gerald shucks his mortal coil, he plops down on top of this wife. Then there’s the little matter of the starving stay dog who decides Gerald would make an acceptable meal.
Given these circumstances, it’s understandable that Jessie soon cracks mentally and begins seeing and hearing things – including versions of Gerald and herself that converse with her and a creepy man who steps out of the shadows of the room at night and shows her a travel bag full of old trinkets and body parts.
“He’s made of moonlight,” her dead husband tells her.
While this might sound like a set up for a simple escape thriller, author Stephen King had more than self-preservation in store for Jessie when he wrote the novel on which co-writer and director Mike Flanagan based the movie. As Jessie wrestles with the handcuffs, thirst and the dog (who eventually decides it wants fresher meat), she confronts the demons of her past that have held her in bondage for decades.
I wasn’t expecting much when I started watching “Gerald’s Game,” which Netflix just released, but soon found myself engaged in Jessie’s fight for physical and mental survival.
Despite being almost two hours long and taking place mostly in one room, “Gerald’s Game” is tense, visually interesting and an absorbing character study.
Making the movie tense was probably easy. King devised a devious set-up for Jessie in his novel and placed the things that could save her – the keys to the handcuffs and a glass of water – just outside her reach. (New to the movie are a cell phone and a bottle of Viagra, neither of which existed in 1992 when the book was published.)
But instead of turning Jessie into a MacGyver-style hero, co-writer and director Mike Flanagan keeps her grounded in the real world, where there seems to be no hope for escape. Early on, it becomes apparent that if Jessie is going to survive (and people familiar with King’s body of work know that might not happen), she’s going to have to wrestle out of her mental handcuffs first.
Making “Gerald’s Game” visually interesting must have been a challenge. But through the use of smooth camera work, wide shots, effective lighting and short takes, the film not only looks nice, it seems to move along at a brisk pace.
As I watched, I found myself wishing I’d had the opportunity to see “Gerald’s Game” on a big screen. Much of that desire rose out of the notion that it seemed like Flanagan directed the film like it was destined to be shown in theaters.
TV movies are often visually boring, but not “Gerald’s Game.” I especially liked how Flanagan used small things in the environment to tell parts of the story. This includes an early shot in which he zooms in on a wedding picture of the happy pair as, down a hall, the now struggling couple enters the fateful bedroom and disappears into the sunlight streaming through its windows.
While “Gerald’s Game” is every bit a good escape thriller, its pulse can be found in Jessie’s mental battle, which is every bit a good psychological thriller.
For starters, Flanagan uses her hallucinatory projections of Gerald and herself to provide insight into her character and open the doorway to a traumatic incident in her past. He also handles Jessie’s internal struggle and the slow opening of that door very smartly.
Also, some of the dialogue is rather profound, as when Jessie, who’s mentally unearthing the past through flashbacks, tells her father he was able to look her in the eyes as he fed her lies but turned his head away when he spoke the truth. So, “Gerald’s Game” is a television movie that’s not only worth watching, it’s worth listening to as well.
Finally, all the primary actors do a wonderful job. Bruce Greenwood has a lot of charisma as Gerald but also handles Jessie’s varying perceptions of his character beautifully. Henry Thomas as Jessie’s dad is also very good in a role that was probably the most difficult to handle given what his character does. And, finally, Carla Gugino is perfect as Jessie. I felt absorbed in her performance, as though she were taking me on that journey with her.
One of the readers of this column emailed me in response to my review of “mother!” He wrote that he had found “It,” another recent King adaptation, repulsive. Although “Gerald’s Game” is set in the real world and not a supernatural one, I’m not sure people who have an aversion to King will like it.
The usual King trappings – aberrant behavior, bloody viscera, detours into places that can only exist in the mind – are there. But beyond that is a well-told tale of a woman’s fight to conquer the monsters of her past. When I look back on 2017, I believe it will be among my favorite films of the year.
3.5 stars out of four