It’s been a big year for big Stephen King movies but it’s turning into a pretty good year for small ones, too. While sweeping stories like It and The Dark Tower present tremendous large-scale challenges, getting King’s gift for capturing the interior lives of his characters, and the mental sinkholes that threaten to drag them under, can be just as tricky. And few of King’s stories depend on that more than his 1992 novel Gerald’s Game, which largely unfolds in the bedroom of a isolated lake house where a sex game goes horribly wrong.
It’s a hard novel to adapt and while it might be tempting try to open the story up a bit, prolific horror director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil) opts to lean into the claustrophobia, much to the film’s benefit. This is a movie about a character who becomes trapped, then realizes she’s been trapped her whole life and Flanagan makes it feel like the walls are closing in around her and the shadows threatening to draw her in.
Carla Gugino plays Jessie, the wife of Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), a successful attorney. To all appearances, they’re a happy couple, but it’s clear from the film’s first moments that all is not well. On the drive to the lake house, Gerald gives her thigh a stroke. She removes it and offers a chaste kiss instead. The reasons for her reluctance become clear when they get behind closed doors. Gerald hasn’t been a faithful, loving husband to her and this is a weekend designed to rescue a marriage in distress — an effect Gerald hopes to achieve in part by spicing up their sex life with a pair of handcuffs.
Jessie goes along, until it becomes clear that Gerald’s drawn the line between fantasy and reality at a spot that makes her uncomfortable. Still chained to the bed, they argue. Then Gerald keels over from a heart attack, leaving her no way to escape.
King published Gerald’s Game a couple of years after Misery, another story of a character confined to a bed, and this film works nicely as a companion piece. Like the writer protagonist of Misery, Jessie has to confront outside threats — a menacing dog and a man in the shadows who may or may not be the product of her imagination — but she also has to confront herself. The film liberalizes this. Gugino, a terrific actress given a too-rare starring role, plays both the real Jessie chained to the bed and an imaginary Jessie who’s there alternately to help and taunt her, sometimes both at once. She’s joined by Gerald’s spirit, who focuses mostly on the taunting, becoming the worst possible version of the husband Jessie realizes now she never fully knew. The film also forces her to confront her past, particularly her relationship with her father (played in flashback by Henry Thomas) and an act of a abuse that did much to determine the course of her life.
(*) It’s also worth noting that this film’s Netflix debut both makes a good case for the streaming platform as a home to original movies and shows how few modestly scaled studio movies make it into theaters these days. Would Rob Reiner’s Misery adaptation — a modestly scaled film starring James Caan years after he was a reliable box office draw and a then little-known Kathy Bates — have premiered on Netflix if it were made today? Most likely, yes.
Flanagan stages these flashbacks in uncomfortable detail without feeling exploitative and if the psychology of her story feels a bit simplified, Gugino’s performance brings layers to it that aren’t necessarily on the page. It’s tough work and difficult material and everyone treads lightly without making it feel like they’re selling this everyday sort of monstrousness short.
And when it comes to the horrors of Jessie’s situation, the film holds nothing back, emphasizing her discomfort and helplessness and the physical effects of prolonged confinement. One long sequence turns an attempt to retrieve a glass of water from an overhanging shelf into a suspenseful set piece in minature. A later moment, best left unspoiled, features one of the most upsetting moments of bodily distress since the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs.
Flanagan has a command of how to make the most of a single location, and Gerald’s Game often captures a sense of mounting tension and fear through small touches like the play of light through the window signaling the end of another day with no promise of a way out. It’s a tough trick to sustain over the course of the film but — up to a head-scratcher of an epilogue that seems like it belongs in a different movie — everyone involved pulls it off beautifully, conveying both the awfulness of the situation in which Jessie finds herself while suggesting that going through hell is the only way to get to the other side of it, and sometimes the only way through is alone.