Netflix Thriller "Gerald's Game" Is A Hopelessly Sour Affair

Although the pervasive, invasive unpleasantness at the center of Netflix’s “Gerald’s Game” is tough to swallow, it is in keeping with its source material (Stephen King’s 1992 novel of the same name). Rape, necrophilia, and sexual abuse of a child are all featured prominently in the text, adding up to a classically King tale of adolescent suffering and adult absolution. Blame the author for the content of the film version; blame writer-director Mike Flanagan (“Oculus”) for the film’s aggressive misread of said unpleasantness and its stunningly inept employment of the book’s big twist. Spoilers to follow.

Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood star as Jessie and Gerald Burlingame, a married couple stealing away to a secluded lake house for a romantic getaway. With the foolish hope that a weekend of kinky sex will save their broken marriage, Jessie dons a nightie, Gerald pops a Viagra, and he handcuffs her to the bed. Jessie has second thoughts almost immediately. Not only is she not turned on – she’s frightened. Her demands to be freed are met with leering protestations from Gerald. Then he falls over and dies of a heart attack.

Jessie is alone in the middle of nowhere, barely mobile enough to reach a glass of water on the mantle above her, much less a phone. Soon she has an apparent mental break and begins conversing with imagined versions of her husband and herself. Flanagan makes a go of this decidedly un-cinematic abstraction, but we know so little about the real-life versions of the characters that the mirage versions can’t help but fizzle.

Although Jessie ends up in handcuffs on page one of the book, the medium gave King the luxury of weaving the couple’s past into the present. Flanagan can only muster a perfunctory intro – featuring a stray dog that ends up an obvious symbol of a starved marriage – that gives little insight into the Burlingames. As a result, Jessie’s long conversations with herself are dead on arrival. Gugino, tasked with carrying long stretches of the film alone, acquits herself admirably, delivering droves of clunky dialogue with considerable grace. Greenwood lends Gerald a fine mix of imposing and pathetic. But the actors are as stranded as their characters, at the mercy of increasingly dopey symbolism that was pulpy in the book, deadly serious here.

Angular Dutch actor Carel Struycken, used so iconically by David Lynch in both the early ‘90s and 2017 iterations of “Twin Peaks,” is used woefully by Flanagan as the “moonlight man” haunting Jessie’s progressively twisted visions. His red, glowing eyes and handbag full of human bones come off as silly instead of scary, undermining both Jessie’s waking nightmares – including a traumatic childhood memory that comes bubbling to the surface – and an epilogue wherein we discover that the “moonlight man” wasn’t a hallucination at all. He was real!

This revelation is handled so clumsily, doled out with such painfully bad voiceover that the recent horror of seeing Jessie cut her right hand and wrist wide open to escape those handcuffs – the medical term is degloving; don’t Google it – fades away, almost impossibly. We’re left with a faint memory of the gristliest scene in recent film history (filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier depicted similarly harrowing imagery much more effectively in “Green Room”) and a boondoggle of a finale that retroactively turns a narrative blip into a major part of the story. Moreover, when Jessie defiantly confronts this real-life serial killer in court, the message is a confounding one: that confronting one’s demons can effectively silence them, once and for all.

The movie isn’t merely a drag; it drains both meaning and tension from the material until all that’s left is a preposterously bloody climax and an epilogue so flat it could be used to level a tabletop. Gerald’s Game certainly isn’t one of Stephen King’s defining works, but a film version – although an inherently risky proposition – didn’t have to be this inhospitable.

Its soon-to-be-infamous degloving scene is best watched through splayed fingers. The film itself is best not watched at all.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: September 29, 2017
Studio: Netflix
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenwriters: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas