WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
It was supposed to be a holiday from the stresses of reality and a chance to reconnect as a husband and wife but Jessie and Gerald’s trip to a secluded cabin soon takes a turn for the tragic as Gerald dies suddenly in the midst of a sex game with Jessie, leaving her handcuffed to the bed with seemingly no way out. As the dehydration and the despair sets in, Jessie starts having visions that take her back to a traumatic part of her childhood. Meanwhile, cloaked in shadow on the far side of the room, Death lies in waiting...
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Working off an ingeniously simple premise, it would be easy enough to summarise Gerald’s Game as a (slightly) kinky 127 Hours, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the product of a couple of horror maestros: Stephen King, on whose book it is based, and Mike Flanagan, adapting a lesser-known King work before he took on the gargantuan task of adapting the Shining sequel, Dr Sleep, the very next year. There’s a survival story at the back of all this, sure, but actually, not unlike 127 Hours, the film itself is about a whole lot more.
Now, whether that "more" is supernatural or not is, in fact, kept highly ambiguous throughout most of the film. Jessie’s visions could well be the results of supernatural visitation but Flanagan leaves you 99% sure that they are purely the fevered dreams of a fractured psyche fighting for survival. The answer to what is happening is, admittedly, spelt out in the final fifteen minutes of the film – and it’s both a massive narrative misstep and a satisfying thematic conclusion to Jessie’s character arc at once.
Admittedly, I pretty much hated the ending when I first saw the film as it leeches out all that uncertainty that helped make the rest of the film so gripping. Indeed, it was almost enough to have me award the film one star less than I have ultimately given it. Purely in terms of plot, the film probably should have ended before this lengthy coda if it were to keep both its sense of mystery and leanness and it remains my least favourite part of the film by a wide distance. And yet, I can at least appreciate the desire to echo the film’s overriding theme of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual) in its "twist" ending. I still don’t like it, though.
What I did like, however, was everything that preceded it.
It quickly becomes clear within the first few minutes of the film - even before the, shall we say, unfortunate incident occurs – that Jessie had been wrestling a number of demons throughout, at the very least, her entire marriage and it’s really not a spoiler to say that abuse, probably of a sexual nature, is involved in there somewhere. And, sure enough, the revelations that unfold over the next hour or so are really not a whole lot more surprising than that – which is exactly my problem with the ending.
Gerald’s Game doesn’t work as well as it does because of the narrative twists and turns that were clearly never meant to be the focus of the story that Flanagan (and presumably, King) is trying to tell. While Flanagan (along with much of his usual crew, including cinematographer Michael Fimognari, and music by the Newton Brothers) brings plenty of flair to such a contained plot and to the very few locations required to bring such a plot to life, it is his keen ability to relate the innermost feelings and thoughts of his characters on screen that is really at the heart of what he does. This is true of Dr Sleep and it’s all the more true of The Haunting of Hill House – which still overshadows everything else he has done over the past few years.
There’s obviously nothing remotely deep about the basic idea that any form of abuse can seriously screw up a person for many years after, but there is a real elegance to the way that Flanagan allows Jessie’s past to unfold and a real sense of both compassion and empowerment to how she finally confronts those events head-on. There’s a methodical, precise nature to his storytelling that, in the hands of a lesser talent, could easily have resulted in a film that is lifeless and sterile but the sheer humanity that drips out of every frame and every word in all of Mike Flanagan’s best work, makes for a film that is as poignant as it is compelling.
And, with all due credit given to Flanagan himself, none of this would have worked even a tenth as well had it not had such a magnetic, powerful performance at the heart of it. Carla Gugino, with her penchant for choosing genre films over the sort of thing that courts any sort of awards buzz, is a massively underrated talent who seldom appears in any list of the greatest actresses of her generation but has always deserved as much.
She’s always great but she is simply spectacular here. Aside from the flashback sequences that feature, among others, a couple of her Hill House castmates, every frame of the film is centred squarely on her. It’s a challenging role and one for which she more than rises to the occasion, delivering a commanding, emotionally raw performance that is every bit as good as anything you’re likely to see come awards season. She is surrounded by a cast of excellent "character actors" but this is her movie through and through - and, boy, does she make the most of it.
Gerald’s Game may not be Mike Flanagan – or Stephen King – at the height of his powers but it’s still pretty damn good. And, however much I appreciate that it’s easily available on Netflix, especially for these house-bound times, it probably would have been even better at the cinema. But, at this point, wouldn’t everything?
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: