Saturday, September 30, 2017

On Netflix: GERALD'S GAME (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Mike Flanagan. Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Cast: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Carel Struycken. (Unrated, 103 mins)

Based on Stephen King's 1992 novel of the same name, the Netflix Original film GERALD'S GAME comes at a particularly zeitgeisty moment in pop culture: Andy Muschietti's IT, from King's 1986 novel, is a bona fide blockbuster and the biggest horror hit in years, and with its themes of sexual abuse and toxic masculinity, GERALD's GAME is a film practically tailor-made for the era of the woke thinkpiece. It's probably taken this long for Gerald's Game to be made into a movie because it's usually cited as one of King's less filmable works, though director/co-writer Mike Flanagan, one of horror's most promising voices of the last decade (OCULUS, HUSH, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, and still-shelved BEFORE I WAKE), gives it his best shot. Gerald's Game was the first novel in what could retroactively be termed King's "woke" phase. It was followed the same year by the acclaimed Dolores Claiborne (made into a movie in 1995) and the middling Rose Madder in 1995 (not yet adapted for the big or small screen, and probably even less filmable than Gerald's Game). GERALD'S GAME works best when it stays focused in the here and now, with its heroine in an increasingly doomed situation. Fatigue sets in and her mind starts playing tricks on her. She begins hallucinating manifestations of long-suppressed traumas of her past that have influenced every decision she's ever made. She summons a degree of inner resolve she never thought possible and King believes in her, and fortunately for Flanagan, he has a game lead actress giving it everything she's got in what should be the role of her career.

GERALD'S GAME is anchored by a gutsy and absolutely fearless performance by Carla Gugino, a jobbing actress who's been a familiar face in movies and TV since the late 1980s, though she first gained notice with her breakout role opposite Pauly Shore in 1993's SON IN LAW. Gugino is Jessie, the beautiful trophy wife of older, wealthy attorney Gerald (Bruce Greenwood). Their marriage has gone stale, and Gerald arranges a weekend getaway at an isolated cabin to reignite the spark. Jessie buys some sexy lingerie, while Gerald packs Viagra and handcuffs. He wastes no time, handcuffing Jessie to the reinforced bedposts and cajoling her to engage in a rape fantasy. Things quickly turn uncomfortable as his play gets a little more rough than Jessie's willing to indulge. She bites his lower lip to get him off of her and in the middle of the ensuing argument, Gerald clutches his arm and his chest, dropping dead of a heart attack right on top of her. She kicks him off the bed and onto the hardwood floor where the fall cracks his head open. There's no one around, Gerald's phone and the keys to the handcuffs are just out of reach, and the design of the bedposts makes it impossible to slide the cuffs off of them to allow freedom. On top of that, Gerald left the front door open in his excitement to get between the sheets, allowing a hungry stray dog inside, who almost immediately helps himself to Gerald's corpse on the bedroom floor. Then the hallucinations start.

Jessie sees herself in the room, giving herself advice and guidance that goes against the vision of Gerald that keeps belittling her and reminding her of her place. The image of Jessie starts bringing up horrific events of her childhood, all centered on an instance of sexual molestation by her father (Henry Thomas in flashbacks) during a solar eclipse while the family was vacationing at a lake when she was 12 (Chiara Aurelia plays Jessie in these scenes). While "Jessie" pushes her to fight, "Gerald" tells her to give in to Death, who will come at night at take her in the form of The Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken), a monstrous specter who collects souvenirs of the dead. When GERALD'S GAME stays in the room, it works, and that's due almost entirely to Gugino's performance. She's ably supported by Greenwood, riffing on his now-standard "Bruce Greenwood" persona (he really is the go-to guy for smug, asshole husbands), but the film falls apart at roughly the same place the book does. Flanagan makes some changes--the book version of Gerald is a unattractive and slovenly, while Greenwood is handsome and impressively buff at 61--but remains faithful to King to a fault. The finale of the novel wasn't a disaster, but on the screen, it doesn't work at all, and not knowing how to end things has been just one problem that's plagued King's inconsistent output since right around the time he wrote Gerald's Game (this was also glaringly apparent with Rose Madder, which starts great but shits the bed and never recovers the moment its battered wife heroine dives into a mirror and enters a fantasy realm, and the issue of whether we're at the point where King's mediocre and forgettable work outnumbers his classics is a valid discussion to have). Flanagan has been a Gerald's Game superfan since he read it as a teenager and has cited it as a dream project that was a main inspiration in his wanting to become a filmmaker. But in the end, his movie adaptation will stand as an example of something not quite translating from page to screen. Stories work differently depending on the medium, and mileage may vary, but the last ten minutes of GERALD'S GAME feel anticlimactic and tacked-on, and the book's ending should've been the first thing to go when Flanagan began outlining the script. Yes, he should be commended for tackling a difficult adaptation and succeeding more often than not (and there's one grisly moment that will make even the most experienced gorehounds grimace and look away), but despite a great performance by Gugino, this aims for the fences but doesn't quite make it.

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