Sexual misadventures turn grisly in this cracking King adaptation.
It was less than a month ago when IT, this year’s smash hit horror adapted from the infamous Stephen King novel about a fear-hungry clown feeding on children, was receiving worldwide praise (review here). With sexual chiller Gerald’s Game now officially released on Netflix, memories of the measly Dark Tower (a single film that tried to compress King’s eight novel legacy) are fading away, as it seems despite its colossal failure, we remain vulnerable to King’s “magics”.
Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) go to spend the weekend in a remote lake house, with hopes of spicing up their marriage. After handcuffing Jessie to the bed, Gerald dies, leaving her stranded.
Gerald’s Game’s basic plot line wouldn’t be out of place in a raunchy comedy, perhaps Wedding Crashers 2? But director Mike Flanagan makes it abundantly clear that isn’t a humourous tale. We open with the couple in the car, taking in the gently sun-covered scenery, light poking through the trees, a picture of tranquility. Gerald then slides his hand up Jessie’s dress, to which she moves it away abruptly but trying to remain affectionate. This establishes a lightning quick dynamic – she isn’t comfortable, he’s uncomfortably keen to get her into bed.
Flanagan, whose previous works include Ouija: Origin of Evil (a frankly terrific follow up to the shockingly mediocre Ouija) and Hush, is an expert of honing on environments to evoke certain feelings and make the setting impressionable rather than simply pretty. Jessie is most comfortable when admiring the trees, the lake, the dog (initially), the peace and quiet, when she doesn’t feel constrained by the company of her husband. This is thanks to carefully shot sequences, and Gugino’s calculated performance.
The inevitable locking of the cuffs is not a sexy, erotic affair. Perhaps it’s because we know what’s coming, but neither of the couple evoke arousal. Gerald oozes creepy over-enthusiasm, and Jessie immediately seems like she’s trying to adapt her husbands ‘desires’. It’s enough to screw your face up, but when Gerald kicks the bucket (the film does point out that men are both blessed but more cursed by their penises), that’s when the fun really begins. However, despite Flanagan’s efforts to engage you in the opening scenes, it has the sensibilities of a TV movie, and although yes it is a Netflix original, I expected more. That soon becomes a thing of the past however. We know have a woman chained to a bed, with no one to help her. *gulps*
Flanagan transports the setting to inside Jessie’s head for the majority of the film. A psychological problem-solver that delves deep into her will to survive (tenners bet you scream “no no no no no no” at any point) and mainly her traumatic past. Gugino sees versions of herself and Bruce talking to her, advising her, tormenting her. Gugino seamlessly performs across the board, remaining the reassuring centre of hope while retaining the utter helplessness she feels in the face of handcuffs, a wild dog that could eat her any moment, and dark visions in her room – or are they visions at all? It’s an emotionally packed take on the character, that has you routing for her from the beginning.
Greenwood’s Bruce is a sleezily delicious villain, acting very much as emotional handcuffs on Jessie. He is the opposing force throughout, smugly grinning at her misfortunes, lecturing and patronising her – sometimes to successful effect. While initially he may come across a bit one dimensional, inside Jessie’s head he soars. While he possesses no real threat after ‘game over’, you’ll find it hard not to squirm in your seat.
The main issue with the film is the script. The film isn’t long at all, running at around 100 minutes. Jeff Howard and Flanagan try to fit a lot into the run time, handling truly disturbing themes that will positively strike a nerve. But in these efforts they mishandle critical elements of the plot, elements which play a larger role towards the film’s tendon-soaked, 1.7 hours style climax. The game ends too cutesy, shifting the tone somewhat from grisly to relieving hastily. Flanagan could have fleshed out Jessie’s inner conflict, which is indeed the most engrossing part of the game, but was in too much a rush to finish with some poorly translated material.