The Most Dangerous Game: A Review of “Gerald’s Game”

It almost seems that Netflix was well aware that the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s IT would be the massive success that it has come to be, amassing over $600 million worldwide and becoming the second-most successful horror film ever made. With Gerald’s Game and 1922, Netflix has adapted two lesser-known King stories on modest budgets, releasing them both in the aftermath of IT’s box-office reign, likely in hopes to cash in on the writer’s name when it’s especially hot (that’s as if it is ever cold, mind you). While I cannot yet speak for 1922, Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game is mostly a great success, presenting a horrifying scenario and highlighting tremendous output from its veteran stars.

Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood co-star as an aging couple seeking the needle to stitch the love that’s been slowly slipping, before they become another forgotten percentage added into the U.S. Census Bureau’s rising divorce statistics. Gugino plays Jess, who’s a handful of years younger than Greenwood’s titular Gerald — although not technically “young” herself — and is particularly unenthused about their blatantly failing marriage and unsure whether they can recover. Gerald, on the other hand, gets the idea to bring the two of them out to a secluded lake house for a weekend getaway; a sort of last-ditch effort to hopefully turn things back to how they were at the beginning. The beautiful house is stocked with expensive wines, no-joke Kobe beef steaks, and two legit pairs of handcuffs.

The handcuffs will soon become a very literal metaphor for Jess’ abusive relationships both former and current. At the outset, however, the cuffs are simply viewed as a playful part of Gerald’s so-called “game,” which he hopes will at the very least revive their sex life. Gerald restrains each of Jess’ hands to each end of a bedpost for some midday fun that is initially consensual, but when Gerald begins to enact a chilling rape fantasy he’s never before revealed, Jess screams for him to stop. This leads to an argument between the two and, ultimately, a severe heart-attack that leaves Gerald’s limp, lifeless body atop a helpless Jess.

As Gerald’s Game’s plot unravels, its main character’s mental stability goes with it. After thrashing about for a bit and unsuccessfully calling for help that obviously won’t ever come, Jess is visited by a feral dog with which she had a run-in on the way to the house. The dog won’t be her only visitor, however. She soon begins viewing apparitions in the form of another version of herself, an alive-again Gerald (while the real one’s corpse rots in front of the bed), and a shadowy, truly terrifying figure lurking in the house’s darkest corners.

From here, Jess argues with the visions of both herself and Gerald, bickering with her own mind about her collapsing relationship, all the while attempting to figure out how to survive this experience. Watching Jess struggle for much of the film becomes a bit tedious at points, but the film’s frantic pace keeps the story engaging enough, in part thanks to some cool visual trickery. And interspersed into the second act are a number of well done flashbacks to Jess’ childhood that supply the character with a disturbing but crucial backstory, becoming one of my favorite aspects of the entire film.

And while the proceedings aren’t particularly gory, one moment during the climax absolutely made me flinch and flee my vision from the screen in shock and disgust. I’ve been mostly desensitized to fictionalized violence, but this is a visual I won’t soon forget, although I absolutely wish I could. Rather, most of the horrifying material in Gerald’s Game comes not from striking its audience with troubling imagery, but through successfully presenting its powerful themes of sexual abuse and the repression thereof.

Both main actors are great, but it is Gugino’s performance that is honestly outstanding. She effortlessly carries the film from its intriguing opening through its somewhat tedious middle, upwards to the stellar climax, and unfortunately to the troubled final moments. My biggest complaint for the film lies in its finale, which introduces a twist that I’m honestly unsure whether I hate, or just merely dislike. Either way, it just isn’t satisfying. Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard mistakenly follow the book’s original ending when they could have changed it into something so much better (à la Frank Darabont’s genius decision altering the ending for his 2007 adaptation of The Mist).

Still, like I said at the top, Gerald’s Game is mostly great for what it is. Flanagan continues to be one of the best horror directors working today, having previously directed the incredible Hush (another Netflix exclusive which I reviewed), as well as the surprisingly good efforts Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil. Gerald’s Game proves that Stephen King film adaptations are on a hot-streak of late, and I have high hopes that Zak Hilditch’s 1922 will keep it going.

4 stars out of 5

Gerald’s Game and 1922 are available to stream now on Netflix.

— Michael Lane, Blog Editor

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