Gerald's Game is a story about the inner horrors of a person trapped by her past.
Stephen King is having a huge Hollywood year. Maybe it didn't start off with the success fans had expected, but after disappointing adaptations of The Mist and Dark Tower, September's It took over the post-summer season and has become the highest-grossing R-rated horror film since 1987's Fatal Attraction. Expectations are high for King's 1922, out on Netflix this month. But it's a different Netflix original that has adapted another King novel into a suspense movie that's scary enough for Halloween and thoughtful enough to pack a powerful message: Gerald's Game.
Quick summary: Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and his wife, Jessie (Carla Gugino), head to their remote lake house for an attempt to reinvigorate their marriage. Gerald's game (and grotesque fantasy) involves handcuffing Jessie's wrists to the bed posts. Quickly, Jessie changes her mind about the role-playing game but Gerald is slow to back down. Suddenly, he clutches his chest. The heart attack drops him on top of Jessie and, trying to move his dead weight, she kicks him off the bed. His head strikes the bottom post and he sprawls on the floor, bleeding.
The caretakers and maintenance crew have all been given the long weekend off. Jessie's friends won't arrive until the next weekend. Right away, the movie becomes a terrifying, no-escape situation as sickening to think about as All is Lost or Gravity.
(Warning: spoilers below.)
Speaking of sickening, it doesn't take long for the stray dog, whom Jessie so lovingly fed Kobe beef outside the lake house, to wander into the house through the open front door and start snacking on Gerald's arm. It's no surprise that, forced to watch the dog chew contentedly on her husband's flesh, Jessie starts hallucinating.
The movie playfully physicalizes the visions: Gerald and another Jessie walk around the room and talk to each other and to the real Jessie as if it were three actors in the scene. Since most of the movie consists of Jessie cuffed to a bed, the movements of the hallucinated actors make the cameras move and let the audience stretch its legs a bit. Gugino's acting while mostly incapacitated is admirable but it would be a much less exciting (and probably more art-house ready) movie without the others moving. Her performance is fantastic as both herself and her imagined duplicate.
From the sick joke that is the dog she'd cared for eating her husband in front of her to the simple cleverness of the situation, director Mike Flanagan shoots with careful framing and expressive colors. The deep red of the eclipse scenes is as ominous as the shadow outlined in the corner of the bedroom.
There is the other… thing lurking in the room. And this is where it becomes complicated. There are really three stories in Gerald's Game: the game gone wrong and Jessie's escape; the mysterious shadow-figure that might or might not be a hallucination; and the return of a deeply repressed memory that is definitely not a hallucination.
The game is the suspense story, a frantic, creative escape from the handcuffs on the bed and from the lake house. With motivation from her imaginary self and undead Gerald's provocations, Jessie slowly works out the way to freedom. But not before she unearths the long-repressed memory that has locked her into handcuffs heavier than those around her wrists.
What at first seem like cheap flashbacks that the director can use as an excuse to leave the room and film in other locations eventually start to reveal a horrifying experience in Jessie's childhood that has affected her entire life. A solar eclipse is washing the country in shadow and Jessie stays with her father at their house while the rest of her family takes the boat out to watch from the water. On a bench on the shore, Jessie's father's disgusting actions with Jessie on his lap and his manipulation of Jessie's fear of her parents divorce lock her into a prison of secrecy.
This is the psychological horror of the film that raises the stakes of her escape. Gerald's Game goes full horror-movie when night falls at the lake house and a tall, malicious figure looms from the dark corner of the room. The dog has fled and Jessie watches the terrifying presence until her fear puts her to sleep. In the morning, wanting to believe it was another hallucination, she is haunted by a smudged footprint near the bed.
This is King's expertise: blending psychological horrors and traumas from the past with questions about how real the monsters are. In The Shining, Danny's imaginary friend was imaginary and Jack's encounter with the evil hedge animals was hallucinatory until Danny returns from Room 237 with bruises on his neck and Jack leaves the hotel bar smelling of gin. In Gerald's Game, it is the footprint and Jessie's missing wedding ring.
The end of the film reveals the deepest level of the escape story. Not simply an escape from the bed, Jessie has escaped from the psychological handcuffs of her husband and of her father. Her letter to her childhood self explains her freedom from her father—"that his shackles were silence"—and from Gerald—"and his were comfort." The hallucinatory battle with herself and her memory was the real escape, finally grasping freedom after decades of repression and fear.
The end also reveals the monster, fully real and in all of the newspapers: "Moonlight Man" (Carel Struycken), as he's called, the necrophile who had begun his criminal career by defiling corpses and had then moved onto murder. Confronting him is her final step to freedom, her final victory over the bonds of fear and complacency. Not all of King's characters make it out alive, but Jessie breaks the chains of secrecy in which her father had locked her and the chains of comfort in which her husband had done the same.
Though, in the first third, it seems about to take on too much weight, the film successfully wraps its stories together and achieves a meaningful and powerful catharsis. Unlike the barely-scraped-through survival of a character in a Halloween movie, where mere survival is enough for a happy ending, Gerald's Game is a horror film with emotional dedication and remarkable importance in its character's victory.