UK Release Date: 29th September 2017
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writer: Jeff Howard, Mike Flanagan
Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken
Synopsis: A sex game goes horribly wrong when the man has a heart attack and dies, leaving his wife handcuffed to the bed, in a secluded house far away from anyone else. She is soon forced to confront her past, as she tries to work out how to survive her predicament.
Cinema absolutely loves Stephen King right now. Earlier this year, multiplex audiences were finally treated to a big screen take on The Dark Tower and the youth-focused new spin on It is currently smashing all kinds of horror movie box office records. On the smaller and modestly-budgeted end of the spectrum is Gerald’s Game, marking another collaboration between Netflix and horror auteur Mike Flanagan, who previously worked with the streaming service on home invasion movie Hush. It’s a single-location thriller with real edge that shows just how effective a Netflix movie can be when the service understands the kind of projects it should be making.
Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) has arranged a private getaway to a secluded Alabama lake house for him and his wife Jessie (Carla Gugino), with the hope of restoring some spark to their relationship. He handcuffs Jessie to the bed as part of a sex game, only to have a heart attack and die. This leaves Jessie alone, handcuffed and unable to free herself. As she tries to survive, she is confronted by bizarre hallucinations and flashbacks to living with her father (Henry Thomas).
Mike Flanagan has proven himself adept in recent years at maximising the potential of horror material, whether it’s with the reality-bending chaos of Oculus, or the franchise-rescuing scares of 60s-set sequel Ouija: Origin of Evil. There’s plenty of DNA from the former in Gerald’s Game, which also plays with the notion of what’s fantasy and what is reality. Flanagan weaves together the real and the imagined with elegant craft to ensure the audience is always one step behind the action and, therefore, always on edge.
The King source gifts Flanagan a delightfully sparse premise, which he then imbues with a great sense of mystery. There’s plenty of room here for Flanagan to explore his protagonist’s past and examine the pattern of toxic masculinity that has led to her current predicament. It would be easy for that idea to be delivered as a blunt instrument, but Gerald’s Game is meticulous in teasing out the conceit and the themes slowly over the course of its running time. It isn’t until Gugino delivers her potent final line that the message becomes emphatically clear.
Gugino makes the most of the spotlight afforded to her by the film’s sense of isolation. Hers is a performance of defiance, but not one that ever slips into ‘woman in peril’ caricature. She’s as initially pathetic as she is ultimately headstrong and Gugino does a tremendous job of selling her journey from resignation to her fate to desperately using all of her wits in an attempt to escape. One scene, in which Flanagan cranks up the gore to produce a scene of genuinely hideous violence, works as well as it does almost entirely as a result of Gugino’s success in building up a character worth supporting, while mostly acting alone. Greenwood, too, is impressive as a loathsome, arrogant avatar of the patriarchy.
The final moments of Gerald’s Game, which amount to an extended 10-minute coda, have divided audiences. It’s not the most elegant piece of storytelling, but it does tie the events of the movie up in a neat bow, while amplifying the resonant themes of the story and providing a satisfying pay-off. After more than an hour of white-knuckle tension and attempts at survival against all odds, the finale is a compelling resolution that gives the whole tale an impressive degree of narrative depth. Alongside Okja, this is Netflix at its absolute best.
Pop or Poop?
In a year crowded with Stephen King adaptations, Gerald’s Game works exceedingly hard to mark itself out as one of the best. Carla Gugino shines in a role designed to showcase her at her absolute best, while Bruce Greenwood makes the most of his limited spotlight.
The finale lands with something of a thud, but Flanagan uses it to provide the kind of depth that VOD horror so often lacks. He’s a horror auteur who’s yet to put a foot wrong and this is his crowning achievement to date.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.