Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Review: GERALD'S GAME

by Patrick Bromley
Mike Flanagan has yet to make a movie I don't like, but this time he might have achieved the impossible.

I can still remember reading Stephen King's Gerald's Game back when it was published in 1992. I was on a family trip to the woods of Wisconsin and brought the book along with me to read during "down time," but then proceeded to do nothing but lose myself in its pages, skipping out on fishing trips and outings into "town" so that I could devour the entire novel in a matter of days. It seemed, even on that initial reading, to be an unfilmable book, consisting mostly of one woman chained to a bed, the prose narrating her inner monologue in a way that would not translate to film. Combine that with some pretty graphic sex and violence and I all but wrote off the chances of Gerald's Game ever becoming one of the many, many King novels to get the big screen treatment.

But here it is, 2017, and Gerald's Game has indeed been adapted, albeit with a catch: rather than getting the big-screen treatment, it has been produced as an original film for Netflix, where it just debuted after premiering at Austin's Fantastic Fest earlier last week. Directed and co-written (with Jeff Howard) by Mike Flanagan -- who has long considered the movie to be a dream project -- Gerald's Game casts the great Carla Gugino as Jesse Burlingame, who travels up to a remote cabin with her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) for a weekend of reconnecting, mostly in the physical sense. Gerald's got some kinky shit planned involving handcuffing Jesse to the bed, but then has a heart attack and dies on top of her, leaving her trapped and helpless and alone with no one to hear her cries. And then there's that hungry dog who has wandered in, looking for something to eat...
It's pointless to talk about Gerald's Game without talking about Carla Gugino, seeing as she's really the whole show despite spending 80% of the movie handcuffed to a bed. I have been a massive fan of Gugino since first really becoming aware of her in Son-in-Law, a movie were she managed to be warm and likable despite the material being pretty stupid and in which she made Pauly Shore seem like a human being worth caring about. I have followed her career closely ever since and even established a long-standing rule that any movie with Carla Gugino is considerably better than that exact same movie without Carla Gugino. While my lifetime of fandom does not need to be rewarded (the fandom is its own reward), Gerald's Game rewards my lifetime of fandom with the best performance Gugino has ever given. It's some all-timer shit, a performance so good that I suspect many of the people who watch the film are going to wonder why they slept on the actor for so long. Her incapacitation is no cheap acting stunt, either, but rather the kind of work that usually turns the heads of those in a position to give out awards. You know, if those people actually respected the horror genre.

Those familiar with Stephen King's writing will know what a fan he is of the internal monologue, a conceit that works well on the page but which is very, very difficult to visualize. Flanagan's solution is obvious but elegant: he simply has Jesse imagine another, stronger version of herself (one who's not chained to a bed) to talk to, as well as a vision of a still-living Gerald who pops up to poison her mind. It gives Gugino the opportunity to play a much different incarnation of the same character, giving her an even greater showcase with which to blow us all away with her range and talent. It affords Bruce Greenwood the opportunity to create more of a character, seeing as his checks out in the first act; it would be easy to pitch Gerald as a sadistic, controlling asshole -- which he kind of is -- but Greenwood wisely plays him as someone you know. What is most impressive about the performances of both actors is that they are able to bring to life a very specific voice King uses for his inner monologues. It's the not same as his regular prose; it has a unique sort of edge every time he uses it. Gugino and Greenwood deliver this material exactly as it should sound.
Flanagan is the right director for Gerald's Game, so I'm happy to see him realize his dream project. He's a filmmaker who has spent his career doing right by his female characters, which is necessary with delicate, potentially awful material like this. His strength has always been in his characters, and he's got some good ones to work with here. I still remember seeing Oculus and calling it one of the best Stephen King movies that Stephen King never wrote, so it's nice to see him actually getting the chance to play in the real SK sandbox. And because he's a horror filmmaker at heart, Flanagan knows how to play the horror moments for maximum impact. There aren't a ton of them in Gerald's Game, which leans more towards domestic psychological drama, but there's at least one that's among the gnarliest things you'll see in a movie this year -- and somehow it's not the dog eating chunks from a corpse. Consider yourself warned. It's as though Flanagan spends the entire movie earning the audience's goodwill just so that he can be sure we won't look away when the time comes. The moment, which you will know when you see, is not gratuitous, not unmotivated. This is a movie about doing what it takes to survive.
There is a denouement that I didn't much care for, but such is the fate of being a Stephen King fan. Endings have never been his strong suit, and the ending of Flanagan's adaptation follows too closely to the King novel to overcome how big a stumble it is. Without it, I could have actually recommended the movie more highly than I already am, because it's that much of a mess. While it makes thematic sense, very little about it is dramatically satisfying; worse, it breaks the spell built inside the cabin by Flanagan, Gugino and Greenwood. Sure, the film leaves the cabin a number of times for flashbacks to Jesse's childhood -- flashbacks that center around an eclipse and go to some dark, dark places (though King fans will recognize the eclipse from Dolores Claiborne; at one point, Gugino even delivers a monologue about Dolores, so it's kind of too bad we couldn't get Kathy Bates to briefly appear and reprise her role from that insanely underrated adaptation) -- but those feel much more of a piece than the ending scenes. Thankfully, the movie ends on a perfect shot and a piece of the Newton Brothers' lovely score and everything is back to being as it should be. While misguided, the resolution cannot derail the work done everywhere else by Flanagan and his cast and crew. Gerald's Game may be an imperfect adaptation, but it's an adaptation that couldn't exist without these actors and this director, who dreamed of turning it into a movie. I'd say that's kind of perfect.

9 comments:

  1. Ranks up there as one of the most disturbing and unsettling horror movies.

    Real bummer that netflix originals the likes of Hush and Geralds game won't be seeing a physical release.

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  2. Great review. While I wasn't entirely on board with the film as a whole, Gugino is always fantastic and she was killin' it in this. I also like how the body was hidden at the foot of the bed from view. Flanagan was pulling some "Rosemary's Baby" stuff where I kept wanting to peek around the screen to see what was happening on the floor. Greenwood was great too. That laborious monologue he delivers in the middle of the film was all in one take from what I remember and while it dragged the movie to a halt for me, it was still really impressive.

    Thanks for pointing out the "Dolores Claiborne" reference as I didn't notice that at all. I think what's great about this movie is that Netflix seems to be letting the directors do what they want. From "I Don't Feel At Home..." to "Death Note" to "Gerald's Game", I'm really excited that these genre directors have a platform that doesn't feel stifled or interfered with by a studio.

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  3. While I'll agree with you on the ending, I think the film actually handles it much more efficiently than the book. What the book dwells on for about 100 pages, the movie gets out of the way in just a few minutes, so at least it has that going for it. Still, this has always been one of my favorite King books, and I'm so glad it finally got the great adaptation it deserved.

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  4. I agree that the ending lost me a little bit. Personally I find it to be among Flanagan's best. I still think I prefer Oculus and Hush over this film but its still very solid. Anything I watch for him is something I can see myself watching again.

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  5. My girlfriend and I loved this movie, it definitely got the biggest emotional reactions from us in recent memory. Flanagan definitely designed each moment to have maximum impact. Having not read the book, the ending seemed like it came from left field. It completely felt like something pulled from the book that didn't translate at all, still it didn't diminish from the rest of the film for me. Flanagan is such a quietly talented director, each of his movies seems to slip under my radar and then blow me away.

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  6. Watched this a few nights ago and really liked it. When I saw that the run time was 1 hour and 45 minutes I was worried that it would drag on and wondered how they'd keep the story moving when it's about one person in one room for the entire time. In reality, I lost track of time and was really gripped by the story. The way Flanagan used the imagined characters and flashbacks to keep the narrative moving was truly brilliant film-making.

    Also, I share your love for "Dolores Claiborne". Whenever people discuss King adaptations I always bring that one up as one they probably haven't seen that's really good. Great book, too. I was excited to see the reference in Gerald's Game - it felt like an Easter egg for fans of the Stephen King universe.

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  7. Excellent review, and great movie. Book adaptations (let alone King adaptations) tend to fall flat when it comes to pacing but Gerald's Game never feels rushed or cramped. 2017 may be a waking nightmare in most other respects but we have two of the best King movie adaptations ever made released within a month of each other.

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  8. So Bruce Greenwood's pretty shredded for a 61-year-old, huh?

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  9. Great review, but I guess I'm in the minority here, but I just didn't enjoy this all that much. Maybe being unfamiliar with the story was too much of an obstacle for me to overcome. Gugino is excellent, as she is in most of the stuff she is in and Greenwood's pretty good too. I may be oversimplifying, as I don't want to spoil anything, but the concept felt like an angel on one shoulder, devil on the other. When I'm not onboard for the primary concept, I start to view things analytically and then there are problems. I felt the timeline was a little wonky, in that she went from 0 to Busey in about 4 hours. The other thing that drove me crazy in a "who does that?" sort of way was leaving the outside door open. I'm probably nitpicking or maybe I overlooked some sort of justification for this stuff.

    Sorry for bagging on a movie that everyone seems to dig. At least we all agree that the ending was out of tune. Also, the gnarly bit mentioned in Patrick's review is a great piece of (wince inducing) filmmaking. It is great that Netflix seems to be allowing these directors full creative control on these projects. This one didn't work for me, but I do respect that they "went for it".

    Btw I also dislike Streets Of Fire which I think may qualify me as an enemy of the state in the FTM extended universe.

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