Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.
Some Stephen King adaptations are easier than others. 1922 writer-director Zak Hilditch had it comparatively easy: his film has to contend with a period setting and a horde of rats, but itâ€™s a small, straightforward character piece, carried more by actors than effects. The makers of Spikeâ€™s The Mist series had it harder, between the challenge of living up to an existing popular film adaptation, and the expense of creating a citywide supernatural mist full of monsters. (They compensated by keeping the monsters under wraps as much as possible.) The people behind the recent Dark Tower movie had an even bigger burden: the challenge of introducing an entire series of mythology, sprawled across multiple worlds. (The muddled, conflicted results suggest they never did make up their mind about what was important to keep.)
But Stephen King adaptation difficulty settings donâ€™t get much higher than they are on Geraldâ€™s Game. Kingâ€™s novel takes place primarily in the head of a woman whoâ€™s talking to herself as she gradually loses her mind, and the actual action largely consists of that woman lying in a bed. It isnâ€™t a physically dynamic scenario, and itâ€™s hard to see how to open up a story thatâ€™s so staid and limited. Itâ€™s one of Kingâ€™s worst novels, a book that wholeheartedly gives in to his worst tendencies to have a protagonistâ€™s magically knowledgeable inner voices explain the world and reveal information. Those voices in the book are quaint, weird characters that emerge from the main characterâ€™s psyche, and the whole story winds up feeling claustrophobic in a limiting way rather than a scary one.
That makes it all the more fascinating that writer-director Mike Flanagan (Hush) and co-writer Jeff Howard have turned Geraldâ€™s Game into one of the most compelling, eerie, memorable Stephen King adaptations to date.
Whatâ€™s the genre?
Straight-up horror, mostly of the psychological variety, though thereâ€™s some out-and-out gore as well.
Whatâ€™s it about?
Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and his significantly younger wife Jessie (Carla Gugino) are trying to rekindle their dying 11-year marriage. Her timidity and uncertainty about their relationship is evident in everything she says or does around him: the way she responds uncomfortably to his touch, her faltering smile when he tries to reassure her that the vacation theyâ€™re about to take will be good for them, and the way she fakes positive reactions to him when she clearly isnâ€™t enthused.
He tries to turn the situation around and books them time in a beautiful remote cottage, where heâ€™s stocked the fridge with gourmet food and given the cleaners the weekend off. Heâ€™s also planned to try something new in the bedroom: a little light bondage. But once Gerald has Jessie handcuffed to the bed, he pulls out a rape fantasy that infuriates her. In the ensuing argument about their marriage, he has a heart attack and dies, leaving her far from help, handcuffed to a really sturdy bed, and facing a slow, painful death by dehydration â€” or some of the other, more immediate threats that emerge, either from her mind or from the neighborhood.
Whatâ€™s it really about?
Metaphorical and emotional bondage as well as the physical and sexual type. As Jessieâ€™s ordeal stretches out and she starts to hallucinate, she comes to terms with buried memories from her past, and how a childhood betrayal led her into a tendency to flee her problems, submerge her emotions, and seek other peopleâ€™s protection. Chained up with no way to escape her current problem, she comes to understand the unhelpful ways sheâ€™s escaped her past problems, and she deals with both at once.
Is it good?
Itâ€™s a heightened, sometimes stagey take on a trashy exploitation flick, but it is mesmerizing. Flanagan and Howard pull off something simple but brilliant: King has Jessie barraged by weirdly specific colorful internal characters, like her college friend Ruth and â€œGoody Burlingame,â€ a fairly literal representation of Jessieâ€™s puritanical side. But the screenwriters have Gerald and Jessie herself take on those inner-voice roles, creating an internal conflict that seems logical instead of arbitrary and faintly comedic. Imaginary Gerald represents Jessieâ€™s self-loathing, self-judgment, and fear. Heâ€™s an antagonistic force who mocks Jessie with her failings and reminds her, over and over, of the vulnerability of her situation and the ugliness of the death awaiting her. Imaginary Jessie, on the other hand, is a strong, beautiful, confident version of Jessie that has her back, but doesnâ€™t have the power to just hand her solutions. She hints and nudges. Sheâ€™s written as that nagging back-of-the-head voice that suggests something important has been forgotten, or that itâ€™s time to put two and two together.
The three-way conversations between these characters work stunningly well. Setting up Jessieâ€™s lifelong traumas as a literal face-off between the external and internal perspectives in her life is a smart, symbolic move that makes Kingâ€™s internal voices shtick more resonant and believable. And as a director, Flanagan uses the mobile charactersâ€™ physical interaction with Jessie and each other to give the staging an intensity and dynamism thatâ€™s hard to imagine in the book. Heâ€™s like a talented theater director, figuring out how to make a talky one-set play visually engaging and dynamic.
Geraldâ€™s Game relies on Kingâ€™s book, though, for the twists and developments that give the story shape, and for the kind of deeply unnerving, gory moments that the author uses to inject tension and anticipation into his stories. Flanagan and Howard follow King surprisingly close, right down to leaving in an oddball, self-indulgent crossover with Kingâ€™s novel Dolores Claiborne, a brief Dark Tower reference that the poorly received movie more or less sets up, and even a Cujo joke. While they tweak Kingâ€™s formula to play better on-screen, they respect his story, which is a solid recipe for King adapters in general.
But the film relies just as much on the actors. Greenwood is a gleeful force of alternating solicitousness and malevolence. His character is a sleazy lawyer whoâ€™s used to charming people, but has a bit of palpable sneakiness under the skin, and Greenwood communicates both those levels of his personality without being showy or obvious about it. As Imaginary Jessie, Gugino is vibrant and intense, and Flanagan gets some powerful imagery out of the increasingly noticeable gap between her and Real Jessie, who progressively gets more haggard and drained throughout the film. But both versions of her are charismatic and sympathetic in different ways.
All this said, Geraldâ€™s Game does have its flaws. Some, like the protracted, voiceover-based endgame structure, come from Kingâ€™s novel. Others are built into the movie, like the suspiciously theatrical lighting that makes Jessieâ€™s prison / room look like a stage setting, or the conscious artificiality of the whole story. The flashbacks to Jessieâ€™s big secret are melodramatic and forced. Those sequences keep aggressively shoving the audience toward emotional responses that just donâ€™t work with the content.
The movie does the most important thing for a Geraldâ€™s Game adaptation: it improves on the original while bringing it accurately to the screen, and it provides viewers with both the character-rich, internal side of Kingâ€™s work, and the startling, visceral side. The movie never gets better than the low, malicious monologue Greenwood delivers about the approach of death. As much as Flanagan pushes to open up the movie outside the room where Jessie is trapped, the filmâ€™s power comes from how well he pulls off what happens in that room, and how the script and the actors come together to convey the horrible inevitability in Jessieâ€™s situation.
What should it be rated?
A definite R, for many reasons, but especially for a sequence that made the entire jaded, used-to-it Fantastic Fest crowd cry out in revulsion and shock.
How can I actually watch it?
Geraldâ€™s Game debuts on Netflix on September 29th, 2017.