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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Review: GERALD'S GAME Is Netflix's Finest Thriller

Going by its premise, Gerald's Game - a new psychological thriller with strong horror elements from Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) - seems too simple to make a fully fleshed-out movie: An aging couple goes on a country vacation to rekindle their sex lives, but when Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) has a heart attack and dies, he leaves his wife Jessie (Carla Gugino) handcuffed to the bed and unable to reach her phone, food, or water. But Flanagan is too smart to make it a simple survival tale, and so is Stephen King, who wrote the 1992 novel upon which the story is based. What Gerald's Game ends up becoming is a canny reappropriation of the rape-revenge film, a survival story that takes one of horror's sleaziest, trashiest subgenres and breathes new life into it. 

A lot of this comes through in the little moments. Any ethical kinkster can see right away how many lines Gerald is crossing; he clearly isn't concerned with his wife's pleasure or consent. And his kink-turned-rape-'play' triggers Jessie in the literal sense of the word, causing her to panic uncontrollably and demand to be freed. When he dies and leaves her stranded, it is thanks in part to his abusive behavior in setting the scenario up; he uses real handcuffs because the novelty kind are too easy to escape or break when things get 'rough', and he refuses to put the key in easy reach for her. A series of escalating horrors help the tension mount, like a stray dog that begins eating Gerald's body and eyeing Jessie as dessert, but much of the drama of the film comes from a series of conversations a rapidly dehydrating Jessie has with both a ghostly version of herself (representing her most canny instincts of self-preservation) and Gerald (representing her self-loathing and self-doubt) as she plots her escape.

It helps that the only two major performances in the film are both phenomenal. Bruce Greenwood's dismissive, manipulative Gerald is a confident, aging alpha male trying desperately to hold on to his masculinity by putting his wife down, and the subtle differences in his performance when he's playing Gerald, a flesh-and-blood man who doesn't see the wrong in what he's doing, and Jessie's vision of Gerald, a ghost who represents to her all the ways in which he kept her down, are incredibly impressive. Even more impressive is Carla Gugino, whose emotional arc carries the film almost silently. Playing a double role in which she has to have conversations with herself is challenging, but Gugino's empowering fantasy self is still believably the same woman, and watching her slowly transition from uncertain and timid to confident and bold is a genuine pleasure.

In a way, what Gerald's Game reminds me most of is the mid-00's horror classic The Descent. In both, the primary arc finds a horrifyingly dangerous situation forcing a woman to channel something primal in order to overcome past trauma. But where The Descent showed us where its lead was broken before building her back up, Gerald's Game is slower to reveal the nature of Jessie's life -- and, when it comes time to finally do so, it smartly refuses to actually show much at all. This is how Flanagan avoids the pitfalls that so often swallow the rape-revenge film, which often tries to titillate with the transgressive before soothing the audience with a bloody bacchanal in which the real monsters get what's coming to them. Instead, Gerald's Game smartly makes all the men who tormented Jessie specters; her revenge is getting out, more complete and stronger than ever.

That said, while I think this is an incredibly strong film, it's not perfect. However, it's impossible to talk about what doesn't work in the movie without discussing the twist ending, so consider yourself warned: If you don't want to be spoiled, skip the next paragraph and you'll be fine.

So much of Gerald's Game revolves around Jessie being forced to confront the abusive behavior of the men in her life, from her childhood molestation at the hands of her father to the persistent misogyny and dismissiveness of her husband, that I understand the necessity of giving her a concrete symbol of toxic masculinity to overcome once and for all. And the Moonlight Man, the eerie giant with a bag of bones who stares at her at night, doesn't make sense in the otherwise grounded reality of the story, so finding a logical explanation for him must have been tempting. But making the Moonlight Man a serial killer and rapist who just happened to wander in to the scenario and telling us about it in a post-script voice-over simply doesn't work. While I know that it's faithful to King's book, it's still just... not a good ending. So much of the thematic work of Jessie overcoming the toxic male gaze that has defined much of her life is done by her slow transition from Gerald's voice dominating her head to finding and trusting her own voice that personifying that struggle even further kind of comes across as silly.

Okay, spoilers over.

Ultimately, Gerald's Game is an excellent movie, one of Netflix's best originals and another win for Flanagan in a shockingly consistent career. While it isn't as extreme as Hush or Oculus or as crowd pleasing as Ouija: Origin of Evil, it bears a resemblance to the excellent character-driven horror-thriller that kicked Flanagan's career into high gear: Absentia. And while It may be one of 2017's biggest films, fans looking for a truly excellent adaptation of King's work can rest easy with Gerald's Game. While the ending falls flat the same way the book's did, it is otherwise a tense, sophisticated psychological thriller that gives Carla Gugino the role she's deserved for years. Flanagan continues to impress as one of horror's great new voices.

Gerald's Game is out now on Netflix and available to all subscribers. Written and directed by Mike Flanagan adapting a novel by Stephen King, Gerald's Game stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood.

Trigger warning for sexual abuse of a minor and sexual assault.
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