By: Hawk Ripjaw (A Toast) –
I can tell you right now that Gerald’s Game is terrific. You can take me on my word, and invest about 100 minutes into this Neflix release, because completely fresh is honestly the best way to consume it. Otherwise, the review contains light spoilers.
Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) travel to a vacation home to reinvigorate their marriage. Gerald’s idea is to handcuff Jessie to the headboard, which Jessie is willing to try. Gerald gets too into the rape fantasy, leading to an argument. The marital strife leading up to this getaway comes to a head. Gerald suddenly dies from a heart attack, leaving Jessie chained to the bed.
Jessie snaps. Gerald is dead, she is trapped, and a feral dog is nibbling at Gerald and waiting to start on Jessie. Her mind takes over. Her fears and neuroses manifest as a critical, living Gerald. Her inner strength, courage, and cleverness appear as another stronger, more confident Jessie. The former insists that this is the end for Jessie. The latter walks her through her fight for life. Jessie must escape, but it will involve more than removing her physical handcuffs.
Gugino and Greenwood anchor the dialogue with electric performances. They weaponize fantastic chemistry into lengthy dialogue scenes flowing with tension. Gugino in particular is an utter powerhouse, guiding Jessie through the anguish, terror, and mental fragmentation of approaching death. When it comes time to unpack the trauma of her past to save her in the present, she perfectly links her emotions to those of her 12-year-old counterpart. Gugino is poised to dominate awards season.
Gerald’s Game cruelly layers the dread, offering frightening new vessels for unease in each scene. One may be a shadow just outside the house, or in the very room. Another may be whispers of what goes through one’s mind right at death. Yet another could be sudden glimpses of past traumas forming present neuroses. Whether physical, imaginary, existential, or psychological, Gerald’s Game employs all of them. They’re each frightening on their own, but earn extra layers of dread when you’re not sure which is which.
There are so many minor things that make the tension much more effective. A repeated shot of Jessie removing and replacing a glass on a shelf barely within reach is frightening because any of those attempts could result in the glass slipping and breaking. Frequent POV shots from Jessie’s position feel as helpless as she is. Many shots hold mere seconds longer than normal, stretching out the anticipation of a scare to unbearable levels. Scene transitions and lighting create confusion and dread. This is a master class of editing.
Driving the dialogue, Jessie’s fractured psyche begins talking to her. It tells her in detail what will happen when she dies. It explains how alone she is now, and how she has been for years. It asks what brings us to our moment of death, and how we could have stopped it. It reminds her of past traumas, and how they’ve lead her here. It’s a different flavor of horror, and it’s almost more terrifying than any creature of the shadows. But there’s some of that too, and it’s still impressively creepy.
These lead to some of the best sequences of the film, where more is revealed about Jessie’s frightened psyche and what led her to marry a misogynistic lawyer and let him handcuff her to a bed. Flashbacks reveal repressed trauma, but may represent sources of inspiration for another attempt at escape in the present. Past traumas shape present submissiveness, but survival mode kickstarts dormant confidence. It’s an affecting character study wrapped in an excellent horror package.
Gerald’s Game is a devastatingly effective psychological horror masterpiece. Mike Flanagan has assembled a spectacularly unsettling chiller that knows exactly when to twist the knife, and does so slowly. The dreadful, paralyzing unease mixes tragic flashbacks and startling moments of gore for an unpredictability that crawls deep under the skin. The character study cleverly interacts with the main plot, introducing new avenues for tension. As a minor disappointment, the epilogue just barely fails to cash in on the dread set by the movie prior, mostly due to execution rather than content. The last ten minutes feel just a bit rushed and lack the confidence of the rest of the story. But the rest of Gerald’s Game is so beautifully put together, it’s a mild stumble in an otherwise stellar picture. This is the horror film to beat in 2017.
Gerald’s Game (2017) Drinking Game
Do a Shot: for every reference to another entry in the King-verse.
Take a Drink: when you think something ambiguous is real.
However, also Take a Drink and See Who Gets Drunk Faster: if you disagree with your friend and think it’s imaginary.
Take a Drink: for every flashback