Directed by Mike Flanagan
Sometimes you hear about a project and at first you’re not too fussed. Then you see who the director is, and it clicks: a perfect marriage between material and the maker. So went my experience with Gerald’s Game: the latest Stephen King adaptation, and Netflix original, from Hush helmer Mike Flanagan. Since breaking on to the scene in 2011, with his understated supernatural debut Absentia, Flanagan has built up a back catalogue of small-scale scarefests. And having shown himself to do confined horror so well, who better to film the horror master’s most confined book?
Sai King, as his constant readers know him, has had a big year, with movies based on It and The Dark Tower met with great, and not so great, responses (TV shows Mr Mercedes and The Mist have been similarly polarizing). Even for a mind that’s conjured up so many timeless boogy-men, Gerald’s Game is a nasty idea. Largely confined to a single room, in a remote lake house, it tells the story of a middle aged couple trying to spice up their relationship with handcuffs. Needless to say this all very wrong very fast. And after her husband Gerald (Greenwood) dies unexpectedly, amidst some aggressive roleplay, Jessie (Gugino) is left handcuffed to a bed frame with no observable way to break free. This may sound a bit like 127 Hours by way of 50 Shades, but it’s so much more. Often horror is a great vehicle for playing out real human drama, albeit under exaggerated circumstances, and this is an excellent example. Metaphorically, as well as literally, Jessie is trapped. With nothing except the corpse of her departed lover for company, and a hungry dog that slowly devours him, the voices in her head start taunting her. Although they’re harmless compared to the ghosts in her past she’s forced to confront. What follows is an engaging character study that’s nonetheless a well-paced survival thriller.
Even in an enclosed setting Flanagan has an awesome eye, and the freedom he gives the camera, which glides round the room like the eye of god, reinforces his credentials as a visualist. Some flashback sequences, involving an eclipse, are mesmerising in their beauty, yet he can also zoom right in when he has to. For instance, a standout scene towards the beginning of Jessie’s turmoil makes getting a glass of water into an epic task. But amazingly, he manages to be even more impressive as a writer. After the screening, Flanagan took to the stage and talked about the difficulties of adapting the novel – with long term collaborator Jeff Howard – he had thought “unfilmable” for years. It’s impressive how organically they turned a lot of the book’s internal monologue into dialogue. Much of the film has Jessie speak with a vision of her deceased husband, and another of herself, as she struggles with sanity. The dialogue in these bits is impressive: punchy, raw and dripping with subtext. What goes unsaid, like in the little lies couples tell others about their happiness, is expertly conveyed. In particular, there’s a skilfully crafted manipulation, where one character floats an idea to get the opposite outcome. It may not sound like much in these vague terms, but it’s truly horrific to watch happen and, importantly, utterly believable. The script doesn’t shy away from the hard bits, and it says a lot about Flanagan and Howard as writers that they do such a good job with the weighty themes. Jessie’s wider character journey is also well handled, and they never lose sight of the bigger picture or message behind it. In the wrong hands the summary at the end would be didactic, but here it unites all the strands into a single, transcendent and deeply moving moment. It’s more than just the sum of it’s brilliant parts.
Of course, with this kind of focused horror a lot of the success comes down to the cast. Even with her mobility impaired, Gugino is extremely expressive. It’s rare to see an actor let themselves be so darn vulnerable, so well and for so long. Allegedly Flanagan tried the handcuffs himself and couldn’t handle five minutes, so my hat goes off to her for what must have been a tough shoot. This may well be the performance of her already accomplished career. Greenwood is exceptional too, conveying a real sense of menace that still sometimes betrays a fucked up kind of love. His lengthy speech about her corpse being found, containing an Easter egg for fanboys, is a masterclass in restrained threat and among the most haunting moments of the movie.
However, it’s pipped by the introduction of the mysterious Space Cowboy. I won’t say much on this part, except he may go down as one of the all-time great King baddies, and each brief appearance is frightening as hell. No, he isn’t the nastiest monster in it, but he is the scariest. I suspect the movie will initially be talked about for containing one of the most shocking, prolonged gore sequences committed to film – the cinema was full of loud squirms and groans. But it’s his bits of well-judged stillness that will stay with you after the credits. And this is probably the highest praise I can give Gerald’s Game: even in the light of the morning after I can’t stop thinking about it. Sure, I had some issues with a time jump at the start, and maybe it’d be good to get more flashbacks, blah, blah, blah. But for a while after I was genuinely silenced, and even thinking about it now gives me that overwhelmed, tingly feeling. Unpleasant, harrowing and powerful. In a year with two high profile releases, I didn’t think I’d be saying Gerald’s Game is the best King flick of 2017. It may also be the best of the millennium. Netflix and chilling.
Gerald’s Game is available on Netflix from September 29th. Stephen King on Screen Season continues at the BFI until October – read all about it here. Thanks to Emma-Lee Davidson for helping with this review.