Sunday, October 1, 2017

Gerald's Game (2017): Surprisingly Deep and Moving Psychological Horror

To start of 31 Days of Horror Movies from Netflix, I'm going to begin with Netflix's newest edition. Gerald's Game was made directly for Netflix and directed by Mike Flanagan and based on a script by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard and, of course, based on the 1991 Stephen King novel of the same name. For years it was considered unadaptable, but the version Flanagan created is a surprisingly deep, well-acted, tour de force, especially from lead actress Carla Gugino, and worth immediately renting (and frankly rewatching too).

The Plot: Unlike something sprawling like The Dark Tower series or even the almost generational nature of It, both also current Stephen King films, Gerald's Game is far more internally based and smaller in scale of plot. Basically, a couple Jessie Burlingame (Gugino) and Gerald Burlingame (an excellent Bruce Greenwood) are trying to save their failing marriage by heading to their remote lake cabin for a weekend of, frankly, rape play sex with very real handcuffs included. Jessie isn't into her husband's game at all and asks him to stop, kicking him off. They argue about their marriage issues and he has a heart attack before he can unshackle her, a reaction from double dosing that little blue pill. That leaves Jessie shackled to a bed with no one around to help her and a few days before she dehydrates to death. The rest of the film follows her struggle to stay alive, find a way out, and to deal with resurfacing memories of childhood abuse. Through all of that she suffers from hallucinations of both her dead husband and a stronger version of herself (Gugino also) playing the devil and angel on her shoulder, respectively, and critiquing her escape plans. Oh, and there may or may not be a ghoul in her room at night, The Midnight Man, a living personification of death, who will take her if she waits too long.

The Good: I've never read the book. Of course, I've heard of it, but I was not familiar with the source material. This movie is so good that I don't want to spoil huge chunks of it. However, I will say from what I read after, Book Jessie's halluncinatory companions seem to be women she's known in her life. I think that having it be a stronger idealized version of Jessie urging herself onto survival and an amped up, even more of a jerk version of her late husband in the film version is genius. Every doubt Jessie has about her chances is wrapped up in "Gerald" verbally biting into her. Every argument "they" have reveals more not just about their terrible marriage dynamic but about her own personal trauma.

-Gugino's performance. This could not be said enough. I've loved her actually since the first season of Spin City, and many reviews argue that she should have had a role this meaty years ago, and I wholeheartedly agree. She has double duty really, between the confident version of Jessie and the Jessie slowly slipping into fear and potential madness, and she does brilliantly differentiating both versions. In a movie that's so internal and has very little in the way of action, she makes a move as key as grabbing a glass of water almost out of place fraught with tension and absorbing.

-Greenwood. While Jessie's version of her husband is a projection about his worst faults run rampant, Greenwood bites into that amped up role with aplomb. He could go full out caricture of the dead, drinks-too-much, womanizing lawyer, but he knows when to pull back. As a result, the way his hallucinatory counterpart needles at Jessie ends up revealing far more about her, than it does even about the late Gerald. Without him and Gugino working so well as a team, this movie would fall flat.

-The atmosphere. The Moonlight Man, that representation of death she sees in the night is haunting and well done. It definitely made it hard to sleep after!

-The handling of Jessie's assault as a child. A substantial portion of the film involves her having flashbacks to buried memories about her father performing a lewd act with her and then conning her into never speaking about it and "shackling her with silence." King has covered similar territory before in Delores Claiborne, and actually slyly references the other work in Jessie's comments about the eclipse that day (also in Clairborne). However, what I appreciate about King is that he doesn't do rape for titilation or always as the only trauma a woman can experience. In Jessie's case as in Selina's  in Delores Clairborne, the incest and abuse they've suffered affects their lives and decisions leading after. They both appear to have success in their own fashions, but have been running ever since from that deeper trauma. A lesser film might have glossed over this or made it feel rote or by the numbers. The nuances are explored, and nothing about it is easily dismissed.

The Bad - honestly, not much is poorly done. I think my biggest problem is that the ending's final ten minutes seem crammed with odd coincidences, and I won't say more and spoil it, but I get that Flanagan was faithful in that part with the book's original ending, but it seemed to fail the stronger theatrical version.

The Verdict - A. There are a few issues at the end, but this is an amazing film with great performances that humanizes horror, both with the need to survive and in regards to what happens when the men who are supposed to protect us (fathers, husbands) turn out to be the monsters of our nightmares.

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