This review includes no spoilers past what’s revealed in the trailer.
The latest adaptation of Stephen King’s work is a Netflix original entitled “Gerald’s Game.” I would award it an 11/10 if it weren’t for the last ten minutes. With the ending, I can only do about 8/10. I will describe the perfection of the first 90 minutes, then get to the controversial misstep gathering ardent defenders.
Baring a freakishly spectacular performance from another actress before 2017 ends, Carla Gugino deserves to win best actress in every single award committee. A strong case could also be made for her winning best supporting actress across the board, since she portrays two versions of the main character who actually dialogue with each other vis a vis hallucinations.
Bruce Greenwood likewise should be nominated and win at least a Screen Actors Guild Award in the supporting actor category. Neither have been A-list stars, but both have consistently put out excellent work in small parts for decades, and I have long thought Gugino deserves a much wider audience.
The cast is very small, and the majority of screen time taken up by the dysfunctional duo of Gugino and Greenwood, who incarnate the opposite of chemistry. They portray a wealthy older married couple vacationing in their stately but isolated “cabin in the woods.” Greenwood’s eponymous Gerald brings some handcuffs to spice things up, and we learn quickly that their marriage has been dry for a while.
Gugino’s Jessie is obviously trying to get involved in his “game” but quickly becomes terrified. This leads to a tense fight, culminating in Gerald having a heart attack before he can uncuff his wife. Then he falls off the bed and dies. All of this happens in the first 20 minutes. The rest of the film is essentially Jessie’s fight for survival and her struggle with emotional demons she has refused to confront since childhood. She is trapped to the headboard by the handcuffs and everything that could help her is infuriatingly inches out of reach.
Stunning Direction, Writing Wanting
Mike Flanagan’s direction is again stunning. Unless James Wan starts to make more creative films, Flanagan will eventually be seen as the great horror auteur of the early twenty-first century. That’s not a slight. Flanagan is not simply an amazing horror filmmaker but an amazing filmmaker. And this film probably represents the height of his powers so far. Sadly, the writing is where he falters.
The film adapts a widely celebrated but infamously unfilmable King story. Everyone seems agreed that the code was cracked. The unfilmable turned out to be powerfully filmable in the right hands. One of the main reasons it works so well Mike’s direction. This film could be easily adapted into a stage play, since the principal cast is two people in a room.
Usually I take this to be a severe detriment, since excellent plays often make horrible movies. For “Gerald’s Game” the photography, editing, and direction turn it into a fever dream of cinematic power. Flanagan is also the editor and he turns the bedroom that almost the entire film takes place within into an epic tapestry upon which to paint Jessie’s existential struggle.
It is terrifying and moving, engrossing and infuriating. It is remarkably restrained, textbook so-called “puzzle box” storytelling, with some amazing special effects to boot. One scene breaks Alfred Hitchcock’s golden rule about unseen violence being more terrifying than the seen. Anyone who has seen it knows what I am talking about and when you get there it cannot be mistaken.
Even so, the seen violence in this film is affecting and sparse. Gore is not inherently scary, hence Hitch’s rule. In this film, that one scene will go down in the books as legendary. One website headlined an article solely about the scene, saying it’s so gruesome it’s making people pass out.
Now for that Terrible Ending
So where did Flanagan go wrong? Keep in mind I am not saying that the ending ruined the film, I’m still giving it a strong 8/10. But the ending simply does not work with the rest of this excellent film.
With some exceptions, films should be seen, not heard. “Apocalypse Now” would make no sense without narration. “Goodfellas” is essentially endless montage, so it’s hard to fault it for not being visual storytelling since montage is one of the purest expressions of cinema. And “Shawshank Redemption” would make sense without narration, but Morgan Freeman’s vocal performance is unparalleled and a distinct highlight of that film.
In many ways, however, Flanagan falters on this point. I’ve never read “Gerald’s Game,” so I cannot speak to the faithfulness of this adaptation, but the director can: “It was something when I read the book that I loved. I know it was polarizing with fans of the book, so the people that hated that epilogue in the book are going to hate it in the movie. I fully expect that [the epilogue is] going to be the lightning rod for people to be like ‘Oh I was so into it and then (groans) that ending.’ But that’s what happened in the book. There was never a time where it felt right to do the film without that ending, for better or worse”
But in the film the problem is not the content of the ending, but its style. The film goes from being highly visual and rhythmic to ham-handed “exposition mouth.” It makes no tonal sense. For 90 minutes, Flanagan fluently speaks the language of cinema, then abruptly switches into spoken English for the last ten. He can blame it on purity of adaptation, but the truth is that Flanagan’s ending is lazy. Rather than attempt something bold and creative, he crammed a bunch of exposition that wasn’t all that important to the film into the end.
This Was an Ending Inappropriate to the Medium of Film
His main defense is even weaker than adaptation. He tweeted, “That ending is the right ending, and this perfectly explains why… it’s the right ending for JESSIE.” If you read the article he links to, you will find a moral defense of the ending, not a cinematic or character, driven one. In other words, this ending is preferred for its “goodness,” not its appropriateness.
“Gerald’s Game” is barely longer than an hour and a half. If Flanagan really cared about this ending, he had time to open it up a bit and tell it in an appropriately filmic, creative, and moving way. Instead, the viewer barely has time to comprehend all the new information thrown out.
I think Flanagan knows it’s an awful ending, so he crafted an inelegant, brief coda to try to whisk the audience past the stench. This is the worst thing he could have done, because it only highlights a flaw. Roger Ebert once said: “Films that explain nothing often make everything clear. Films that explain everything often have nothing to explain.” In applying this to “Gerald’s Game,” I would paraphrase him like this: “Films that are saying something don’t need to tell you what they are saying. Films that tell you what they saying are actually saying nothing at all.”