Stephen King is having a moment, and so is Mike Flanagan. Coming off of the modest success and positive critical buzz surrounding last year’s Hush and Ouija: Origin Of Evil, Flanagan decided to cash in his “director to watch” chips and re-team with Netflix for a film adaptation of Gerald’s Game (B+). It’s not an easy sell: Not only is King’s book structured in such a way to make it extremely difficult to adapt—much of it takes place inside the mind of the main character, Jessie (Carla Gugino), as she lies handcuffed to a bed, alone, after her husband dies mid-kinky sex—but it deals with some very challenging themes of sexual abuse and the silencing of women. In case you haven’t heard, those are both scalding-hot issues at Fantastic Fest this year. But Flanagan’s film, and Gugino’s performance in particular, addresses those themes in bold, cathartic ways that allow Jessie to finally become the heroine of her own story after a lifetime of sexual and emotional abuse. The credits rolled to thunderous applause.
Perhaps because he’s had a couple of decades to think about it, Flanagan’s vision for the film is assured, full of intimate closeups that allow Gugino’s multi-layered performance to shine. (In an interview with The A.V. Club earlier today, Flanagan said he read Gerald’s Game when he was 19 and has been planning a film version ever since, even carrying a copy of the book with him to pitch meetings just in case.) As the film opens, Jessie and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) are listening to a Sam Cooke song on the stereo of their absurdly expensive car, on their way to a weekend retreat where they hope to reignite their marriage over $200-a-serving Kobe steaks. But first on the agenda is a bit of bondage, and Gerald soon pivots into a rape role-play that triggers panic in his wife. In the fight that ensues, Gerald—his already-stressed heart under extra strain thanks to the Viagra he popped before their “game”—has a heart attack and collapses. Then the movie really begins.
Flanagan’s adaptation streamlines the storytelling, reviving Gerald (or, at least, Jessie’s hallucination of Gerald) early on to serve as the voice of every primal fear and traumatic memory that leaps to the front of Jessie’s mind as the hours turn into days. This technique turns the film’s lengthy second act into a combination chamber drama and survival thriller, as dehydration, a vicious stray dog, and Jessie’s vision of an unearthly “Moonlight Man” interrupt her dry verbal sparring with Gerald’s misogynist mirage. Needless to say, things get really dark for a while. But Gugino’s vulnerability and unshakeable will to live keep the viewer invested in her—and thus the film—whether it’s through a series of traumatic flashbacks or a horrifyingly realistic gore prosthetic that had even the jaded critics at an early Fantastic Fest screening gasping and looking away.
Unlike the recent Stephen King mega-hit It, Gerald’s Game stays faithful to King’s ending, necessitating some clunky, groan-worthy voiceover that stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the film. (Let’s be honest: Stephen King is better at beginnings than endings.) Still, overall, Flanagan’s passion project meshes nicely with his directorial style, effectively deploying sickening practical effects from Robert Kurtzman’s Creature Corps and a minimally applied score from The Newton Brothers. (Interestingly, Flanagan declines to use musical cues in the film’s horror sequences, letting silence build the dread instead.) As the renewed wave of interest in Stephen King continues to crash on our cinematic shores, we can only hope that future adapters and adaptions will be so well matched.