Gerald’s Game is a novel, like many of Stephen King’s work, that I read when I was far too young for the source material. As far as I could tell it was about sex stuff but not the fun, interesting type. The weird, scary kind that I had no comprehension of (still kind of don’t, I mean handcuffs? Where does that get fun…), so the story drifted off into the nether regions of my memory and I haven’t thought about it much, if at all. When a trailer popped up for it a few weeks ago, I dusted off what recollections I had and tried to remember if it was worth checking out and although surveys said, “Nah“, the strength of the casting alone sold me on checking out at least a few minutes of the film. Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood are two of my favorite actors that are somehow both incredibly talented and relatively unknown, but they get work regularly on a variety of different projects, so I don’t complain, their presences are usually a barometer of quality. And while I typically do not like scary movies at all, particularly the gory, slasher type, I have a great love for psychological horror. Films like The Descent or Jacob’s Ladder where the monsters on the outside may or may not be worse than the ones in the character’s heads. This is where that ten minute experiment with Gerald’s Game grabbed me by the metaphorical throat and held me hostage for the next two hours (HA! Because it’s a movie…about being trapped in a…. ahem….analogy…..). I’d forgotten one of Stephen King’s most underrated and underappreciated gifts as a storyteller in the afterglow (or not) of his big epic adventures like The Gunslinger or It and it’s subsequent grown-up sequel coming in 2019 and it’s that he’s a fucking master of tense, low-key, surreal narrative. It’s that hearing his characters talk and think and imagine and recall are all something he can do while making the reader or viewer feel like they are a part of the experience, it’s as if he knows these characters before he knows the story and that we are all, including King, along for the ride. Director, co-writer, and editor Mike Flanagan is fully aware of this and does a spectacular job, possibly the best since The Shawshank Redemption/The Green Mile combo by Frank Darabont, of bringing King’s novel off of the page and onto the screen with such naturalism you’d forget which came first.
Back to Gugino and Greenwood, without going beyond that first 10 minutes of film time or spoiling the situation as it unfolds from there, these two actors could not be more in their element, playing off each other with such a pitch perfect blend of tenderness and spite that it’s hard to believe they haven’t been working together for years. So affecting are the performances, and aside from a few practical impediments, a majority of this film could take place as a stage production. Writing like this, that is mostly dialogue and internal monologue (kind of), sinks or swims on the performances, this could easily have turned into a weak imitation of the Saw franchise and become a direct to DVD bore-fest, instead of the absolute clinic in character development and arc that it is. They are helped by the fact that veteran horror director Mike Flanagan knows exactly what the hell he is doing. Instead of trying to weird out or shock the audience with awkward angles or rapid cuts or the bane of my existence and sign of a cheap, lowdown, good-for-nothing hack, jump scares, he lets the actors create and build the tension. He lets the scene do the work, where the fear and horror comes from what might happen or what’s just out of view, rather than slapping the audience in the face with a loud noise or a piece of gore. If ever there was a genre that benefits greatly from effective suspension of disbelief, it’s this one and a director who knows how to keep stylistic flourishes or winks at the audience out of the picture is a smart one.
Gerald’s Game, when not being a study in the simple, claustrophobic fear of being trapped alone in the dark, goes into some pretty dark subject matter in an intelligent, thoughtful way and King deserves more credit for depth than he’s usually given. For a good long while during his heyday, the writer was regularly mocked by so-called or self-described “serious” literary establishments for being a populist, no-talent shill, with no redeeming qualities or significance to speak of, and it’s not hard to understand why. But for all the books about cars coming to life and killing people or tractor-trailers coming to life and killing people or vending machines coming to life and killing people, there’s are some truly moving, exceptional stories that come out of the man’s head. Stand By Me, based on the novella The Body, is one of the finest coming-of-age stories of this generation, The Shawshank Redemption is basically a perfect film but the short story Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is just as magical and moving as the adaptation (a bit shorter, of course). And Misery is without a doubt one of the most terrifying, engrossing stories you’ll ever read and the thing that these all have in common, including Gerald’s Game, is how grounded they are in reality. When King sets down the supernatural element and focuses on the human one, he shows exactly how good he can be. The themes in this film, in anyone else’s hands, could have been an exercise in what horror and most mainstream film get wrong so often: objectifying and disempowering women with violence, sexual or otherwise. Instead, it does what great horror stories can do so well: humanize, redeem, and ultimately empower a victim. All credit to Mike Flanagan and company for understanding and realizing it so well, this is an adaptation that should not be missed, but a real tip of the hat also goes to the man himself for subverting the genre before it was cool. Long live the King.