Fantastic Fest Review: ‘GERALD’S GAME’ brilliantly toys with perception
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Kudos to the filmmakers behind GERALD’S GAME. They’ve solved the unsolvable: how to properly utilize and shoot a story taking place almost all in one location and entirely through one character’s perspective. Director-co-writer Mike Flanagan, along with co-writer/ frequent collaborator Jeff Howard, have put evident passion behind their adaptation of Stephen King’s previously thought “unfilmable” novel, turning it into a gripping, visceral thriller that, yes, gave me anxiety nightmares.
Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino, who gives a career-defining performance) and husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) are looking to put the spark back in their eleven-year marriage with a quick getaway to their secluded lake house. A weekend of rest and relaxation awaits! Actually, not so much. Not only does Gerald’s kinky sex play take a wrong turn, things really go pear-shaped when he has a heart attack and dies, leaving Jessie handcuffed to the bedposts and in a totally vulnerable position. She’s forced to gather wits and take stock, doing everything she can to break free of her physical situation and lingering mental trauma.
Jessie’s mounting, tension-filled stakes as the hours click by and the claustrophobia of her world caving in feel palpably unnerving. A quick pace helps keep suspense from letting viewer fatigue get inside those lake house four walls. Flanagan and Howard use King’s flashback technique only when necessary. It’s like they know that we resist that kind of writer’s crutch almost as much as our heroine herself is reticent to face her past truths. Plus, eagle-eyed viewers/ fans of Flanagan and Howard’s previous works, will spot the OCULUS mirror making a cameo as the bed’s backboard.
It may sound crazy, but in the hands of these capable filmmakers, a story about a woman in chains (in every sense of the phrase) is surprisingly empowering and healing. A woman dealing with trauma is put in the power position, whereas men with issues about their masculinity and virility are shown as fragile, compromised, horrifically flawed folk. How Jessie works through her challenges is fully realized and tangibly cinematic. The thematic and visual connections they draw are pure brilliance – between the handcuffs, marriage itself and the carnivorous, wild dog hounding her, not to mention Gerald’s corpse and a specter she thinks is “made of moonlight.” It differs in small but effective ways from the book – like changing Gerald from a schlub to a fit and handsome guy, the circumstances how he dies, and giving Greenwood a range of “Gerald” personalities to play as his ghost taunts her (clueless Gerald is the best Gerald). The pair also pull a few other really strong tricks to flesh out and bring voice to her fractured psyche – ones I don’t want to give away here lest I spoil the fun.
Sure, there’s a squirm-inducing brutality (particularly evident in the climax) that makes this solid genre-filmmaking. It will make you scream and possibly also make your stomach turn over. However, ultimately the true horror deals with the betrayal of trust that leaves an ever-present, but well-hidden mark. We cover up that trauma with lies that bind us and until we face those lies, we can’t face the truth. It’s deeply heartening that the takeaway message is that one can find recovery, calling upon past pains to work through current terrors.
GERALD’S GAME is available on Netflix Instant on September 29.