Mind Games in Bed: Riveting “Gerald’s Game” another Stephen King adaptation done right

Gerald’s Game (2017)
103 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Now that Stephen King is all the rage again, here is another 2017 adaptation of his done right. Like the most recent “It,” King’s 1992 novel “Gerald’s Game” lends itself to work on multiple levels. A marital power play. An intensely visceral survival story confined to a bedroom. A psychological examination of abuse and repressed trauma that informs the present. An intimate study of female empowerment. Writer-director Mike Flanagan (2016’s “Hush”) and co-writer Jeff Howard (2016’s “Ouija: Origin of Evil”) admirably forgo pop psychology and find all the depth in King’s source material to adeptly craft a film that, in lesser hands, could have come off tawdry or just unadaptable. Rather, “Gerald’s Game” is harrowing, unbearably tense and even challenging. What’s more, it allows Carla Gugino to give her most impressive performance, well, ever.

Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) and attorney husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) retreat to their remote lake house in Maine to spice up their marriage and hopefully save it. As the negligee-clad Jessie arranges herself on the bed in a sexy, desirable way, Gerald comes in with two pairs of handcuffs. She goes with it, as he chains both of her hands to the bed posts. Once Gerald starts playing out his own kinky rape fantasy, Jessie has had enough, at which point Gerald has a heart attack and falls off the bed, enough blood seeping out of his head that could perhaps attract a starving stray dog. Though Jessie sits idle, trapped to the bed, her thoughts run wild and her mind plays tricks. As hours go by and then days, a thirsty, cramping Jessie begins hallucinating Gerald’s ghostly doppelganger and Jessie’s more confident doppelganger. At the end of the day, it’s only Jessie who can get herself out of this nightmare.

While anyone could stage “Gerald’s Game” like a chamber teleplay, Mike Flanagan’s direction is unshowy but slick, dynamic and paced with precision. He sets up all the bread crumbs as Jessie and Gerald drive to their house by the lake and set up shop for their romantic getaway: a radio report of recent break-ins in the area; Jessie taking pity on a stray German Shepherd by leaving out a cut of Gerald’s expensive Kobe steak he bought; the front door that gets left open as Gerald whisks his wife away to the bedroom; a price tag Jessie tears off her white slip and hides on top of the shelf above their bed; the glass of water Gerald sets on top of that same shelf after taking his Viagra; the handcuff keys Gerald sets near the sink; the non-charging cell phone that might be reachable on a bedside table; and Gerald’s fantasy performance, demanding Jessie scream because no one will be able to hear her. Jessie is still minimized by her husband, even after Gerald is dead on the floor, and then, to make her situation worse, visited in the night by The Moonlight Man (a skin-crawlingly terrifying Carel Struycken, best known for “Twin Peaks” and for playing Lurch in “The Addams Family” films), a ghoul wielding a bag of bones and wedding rings who may or may not be a figment of her imagination. 

What might seem too static of a conceit for one feature film to sustain, Flanagan gets around Jessie’s inner monologue by having her converse with two mobile versions of Gerald and herself, and those exchanges may be talky but they’re written thoughtfully and performed with juicy aplomb. Emotionally available in every scene even as she has both hands handcuffed, Carla Gugino is a force to be reckoned with and gets so much to play. Up to this point, she has been a vulnerable, dutiful wife to Gerald that it takes these sort of horrible circumstances to allow her to rebuild her strength and reflect on her inner demons. The dual version of Jessie is cool, calm, and quick to give it back to the “live” version of Gerald, who’s like a devil on Jessie's shoulder. As the eponymous Gerald, Bruce Greenwood (who bares his muscular top half for much of the film) is chilling and intimidating, the embodiment of toxic masculinity, but not without flashes of humor; though it might sound like a facile notion to say all women marry versions of their fathers, one later understands why Jessie married Gerald.

“Gerald’s Game” does leave Jessie’s bedside but only to go into her disturbing memory when she was 12 years old (Chiara Aurelia) and had to keep a secret she never told anyone, not even Gerald, regarding an inappropriately traumatic incident with her own father (a creepy Henry Thomas) at her family’s lake house. How Flanagan (who also works as his own editor on his films) meticulously cuts between the present and past only propels the momentum and the evolving pathos of the story even more. If this subject matter is handled honestly but in a more suggestively restrained manner, viewers will not be anticipating the squirm-inducingly brutal act a resourceful Jessie must inflict upon herself; the squeamish will probably have to look away.

Unlike 2017's “other” Stephen King adaptation (not “It” but “The Dark Tower”), “Gerald’s Game” is very much a part of King’s universe without arbitrarily throwing in “Where’s Waldo?” Easter Eggs that serve no real purpose. The protagonist being held captive to a bed reminds of “Misery”; the flashbacks to Jessie’s childhood involve a solar eclipse, also a pivotal event in “Dolores Claiborne”; and Gerald even calls the mangy stray dog “Cujo.” The epilogue that follows everything Jessie goes through gracelessly spells a lot out for the audience when ambiguity might have been preferred, but it is the one quibble in an otherwise gripping and cathartic tale. In what surely was a tough nut to crack in transitioning from page to screen, “Gerald’s Game” is elegantly simple but emotionally complex and riveting.

Grade: B +