The first horror movie I ever saw that left me truly unnerved after my viewing had finished was Hush, the 2016 cat-and-mouse thriller directed by Mike Flanagan. I felt scared to be alone and was thoroughly aware of the film’s effect on me as I let the dark play tricks on my eyes and lay a cold hand on my shoulder. Gerald’s Game, also written and directed by Flanagan, left me in the same anxious stupor. Flanagan has proved with this film that he is one of the best directors working in horror today. His past filmography shows a myriad of excellent horror films; Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil are two other films besides Gerald’s Game and Hush that have been received well by critics.
What works so well about Gerald’s Game is that Flanagan does not treat this like a usual horror film. The usual tropes are left in the dust so that Flanagan can rely on the excellent performances and frightening imagery he so keenly adapted from Stephen King’s novella of the same name. Flanagan has worked these characters to show their innermost nuances, rendering them people with genuine depth rather than doling out a featureless and comical set of characters so often found in horror movies today.
This screenplay is a gripping tale that reaches far beyond its synopsis. Under the pretense of fixing their deteriorating marriage, Gerald and Jessie Burlingame rent a secluded lake house and bring along with them handcuffs and a new lingerie slip. But when Gerald dies abruptly in the midst of foreplay, Jessie finds herself handcuffed to the bed frame and desperate to survive.
At a basic level, this is a captivity thriller. I expected no more when I started this film. What transcends is something much richer than I have perhaps ever seen in a horror movie before. There is something that lurks in Jessie’s past, something that creeps behind many years of safeguards and self-erected walls that is slowly unveiled as the film progresses. It is harrowing to watch that be uncovered, especially when combined with the frustration and fear we feel for her current situation.
If the Academy has any empathy left in its heart, Carla Gugino will receive a nod for her role as Jessie. She has emphatically given one of the best performances I have seen from her and perhaps from any actress all year. She does nothing to render her performance cheap or embarrassing, ripping everything from this character and working it until she has made it something entirely her own. Her performance is a spectacle and something of utmost intrigue.
Bruce Greenwood as Gerald also acts very well as her sinister husband. Occasionally bursting with bouts of well crafted and poetic dialogue, he appears as Gerald alive and reanimated (a figment of Jessie’s imagination as she slowly loses her mind) to speak to Jessie in her moments of panic. He edges her on, confirming her fears, elongating and humiliating her position of weakness. Gugino also appears as a figment of Jesse’s imagination, playing a more confident and witty version of herself. Gugino and Greenwood make an excellent pair.
One drawback I found is the ending of this film. The disquieting element I felt so viscerally throughout this entire film was, sadly, left untouched in the final act. Some parts of the ending left the movie almost incomplete, verging on cheesiness and frustrating ignoble, even though the ending was intended to be heroic. On Flanagan’s part, the ending is exactly as it was in the novella, so I do give him credit for remaining loyal to King’s story. However, sometimes it is best make new the parts that seem unsatisfactory instead of adapting verbatim things that need adjusting. What was so interesting about this film was its darker elements; the ending, unfortunately, lost this component.