31 Days of Hell: Gerald's Game (2017) - Reviewed

As big budget titans crumble under the weight of aggregate review sites and meme fueled prejudgments, the horror genre continues to thrive.  While Marvel has the golden formula that is given them (mostly) immunity from a growing plague of lackluster releases and reviews, smaller studios like Blumhouse have created their own formula, releasing fun and frightening thrillers on minuscule budgets whose returns are almost certain to make profits.  Amidst this economic battlefield, Stephen King's brand has become legendary, a diverse portfolio of films that exists in both camps.  

The big budget adaptation of his masterwork IT broke box office records and reminded viewers of how malleable and unique the genre can be.  There are several television shows in the works, based off of King's properties and despite the critical malign, The Dark Tower almost doubled its budget.  Netflix's adaptation of Gerald's Game is a complicated animal.  The novel received a lot of praise from diehard fans, but it has never been considered one of his greatest works, perhaps due to the extremely dark subject matter.  The most interesting thing about the novel (and movie by proxy) is how King tends to find his stride whenever he works with the concepts of real evil as opposed to supernatural.  While hideous things that go bump in the night are always good for a scare, nothing makes the skin crawl more than knowing the horrors we're witnessing could be happening next door. 

Jesse and Gerald escape to a lakeside cabin in the woods for a romantic weekend under the pretense of reigniting the passion in their marriage.  Gerald suggests a bondage scenario involving handcuffs to which Jesse relents, ultimately placing her in a lethal predicament that forces her to confront the horrors of her past in order to survive.  Mike Flanagan's steady direction and a pair of terrific performances builds on this concept, exploring one of King's more quiet stories with what initial appears as a soap opera treatment.  The lighting and Michael Fimognari’s camerawork frames Jesse's ordeal with a crispness that often has the viewer forgetting the unthinkable predicament that is the central component of the narrative.  Everything, purposefully, feels out of sync.  

This is Gerald's Game's strongest attribute, how the visuals enhance the interplay between the two leads by presenting their interaction as a byproduct of faux-sterility.  Within seconds the viewer knows something is terribly awry in the seemingly idyllic relationship at the center of the proceedings.  This leads to a sickening resignation as Jesse is placed into handcuffs by her husband, simulating a terrible omen of unconfronted demons.    Carla Gugino gives a solid performance, particularly with respect to the script's demands towards tone.  This is a story that goes from quasi-supernatural nightmare to harrowing survival scenario in the next.  Gugino's Jesse presents as a woman with secrets that is forced to confront her disastrous past through physical and psychological torment.  While the set up, and delivery have been done better many, many times before, Gugino keeps the viewer endeared with her honest portrayal that never slips into parody or melodrama.  To respect the reality is ultimately to respect the intent of King's story, which, despite its flaws has a lot to say about power and victimization. 

Bruce Greenwood continues his rock-solid career of character acting with a wonderfully vicious turn.  While his Gerald isn't presented nearly as harshly as in the novel, the darkness is still there and Greenwood's uncharacteristic embrace of this makes his unique performance even better.  Still, both Greenwood and Gugino don’t have a lot to work with.  Despite the intriguing premise, everything quickly devolves into a predictable and ultimately forgettable affair.

Available now on Netflix, Gerald's Game is a decent adaptation that takes great pains to stay within the middle lane.  While there are gruesome scenes of torment, this is a relatively tame horror offering, focusing more on the psychological journey of the protagonist.  Some viewers will find the ending ludicrous at worst, extraneous at best.  Still, this is an above-board film that dares to examine startling topics, and even if the examination is shallow, it has a few moments of inspiration.  The issue is that Flanagan all but ignores everything else.  King's novel split the dynamic between Jesse's present captivity and her traumatic past as a means to propel Jesse's eventual evolution into the realm of plausibility, given the nature of the extreme tortures she has endured.  In the film, her final incarnation is not only telegraphed, it lacks the edge of the text to the point that Gerald's Game borders on being insincere, complete with an aggressively, almost insulting allegorical finale. 

 -- Kyle Jonathan