It’s hard to think of an unfilmable Stephen King story with a higher degree of difficulty than Gerald’s Game. The original 1992 novel is a radical variation on erotic thriller trend, a deconstructed riff on Eszterhas-y softcore noir by the ever-adventurous King (a longtime EW contributor). The book begins with Jessie Burlingame anxiously allowing her husband Gerald to initiate some playful-yet-eerie role play, handcuffing her to a bed in their vacation home. The home happens to be a cabin in the woods, and the horrors start quickly. Gerald expires from a heart attack, leaving Jessie latched to their marital bed. That’s the inciting incident, and most of the plot.
Credit director Mike Flanagan for tackling such a potentially static premise, and doubly credit the great Carla Gugino for spending much of the Gerald’s Game adaptation wearing handcuffs and a slip and an expression of mad terror. The early scenes have a droll domestic suspense. Jessie and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) arrive at their vacation home. They awkwardly prepare for a good time. She rips a tag off her undergarments; he swallows a blue pill.
The scene that follows is a complex, freaky, darkly funny emotional ballet. Greenwood and Gugino make a compelling old married couple, experts at talking around each other. And then Gerald grasps his chest, and a wild dog walks through the open door, and the real nightmare begins.
And also, sadly, kind of ends. Flanagan has conceived some clever strategies for approaching Jessie’s predicament, at one point composing an entire action scene out of the gradual movement of a glass of water across a wooden shelf. But in attempting to translate the voice of the novel – King speaking through Jessie, Jessie speaking to herself and then to herselves – Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard aim for the oldest trick in the book: Imaginary friends. So a freaked-out Jessie talks to a revenant Gerald (Greenwood, now with a sneer) and to a separate unshackled self (Gugino, in full badass mode).
There’s a grand guignol sensibility here, the decomposing corpse at the end of the bed, the imaginary Jessie and Gerald doing their own underwear-only interpretation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But then some of the hallucinations begin to debate the relative reality of other hallucinations. Meanwhile, there’s a stretch towards more sensitive material, flashing back to Jessie’s youth to explore the origins of her genuine trauma.
The film stretches to weave these two tones together, a madcap domestic apocalypse and a repressed assault narrative. When it works, it’s because of Gugino, the rare performer who can suggest victimized despair and empowered triumph. At the climactic moment, she embodies both, as the film builds to an act that’s both suicidal and resurrective.
That act, which I won’t spoil, is also one of the single grossest things I’ve ever seen in a movie. It would almost be worth the price of admissions; it’s certainly worth a Netflix click. But that build takes a long time. Like King’s original book, Gerald’s Game runs on too long, an undernourished 100 minutes with an unbearably endless closing sequence. C+