It’s perhaps questionable that Gerald's Game could actually exist in any sort of visual form. The adaptation of Stephen King’s 1992 novel would be tricky by virtue of its internal nature; a film from the point of view of a woman who would be spending 90% of the screen time handcuffed to a bed nearly immobile doesn’t reek of visual dynamism. The novel was heavily internalized within Jessie’s mind, a mix of flashbacks, hallucinations and memories, just the sort of narrative device that is so often impossible to bring to a visual medium. You can write long, stream of consciousness internal monologues in text to deal with such challenges, but those devices fall short when put to moving images. It would be a tall order for a studio to take on and release into cinemas, but the emergence of Netflix as a content producer alongside a content distributor has opened up new avenues for smaller or riskier projects, and it’s there that director Mike Flanagan has been given the opportunity to see what he can do with this thorny, challenging material.
Flanagan isn’t yet a big name in the horror world, but that has not stopped him from building a resume mightier than it may look on paper. His debut feature, Absentia, showed promise, and he’s continued to pump out low risk, high reward horror films like Oculus and Hush (and, perhaps surprisingly, Ouija: Origin of Evil), all of which are better than they honestly have any right to be. It would be a stretch to call these films truly great or on the level of the Under the Skins and It Followses and the The Witches of the last few years, but they’re also orders of magnitude better than low effort low budget January dumping ground releases like The Bye Bye Man and The Forest. What Flanagan represents is something akin to a competent craftsman; he’s not going to make the most beautiful piece of art, but his bench was built to last and will support all the weight thrown at it.
It’s that dependability that made Gerald's Game something a little more than an oddity to be lumped in with the litany of Netflix films that come and go with little more than a peep. The timing was certainly right, coming out a few short weeks after IT brought King back into the zeitgeist by virtue of bringing in more box office money than any horror movie in history. And Flanagan’s adaptation is a conservative one, dialing down the violence that leaves Jessie (Carla Gugino) stranded and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) dead at the foot of the bed. Flanagan doesn’t leave Jessie’s side once she’s in her predicament, limiting his camera to little more than her field of view and doubling down on the foundational horror of the exercise: that of the unknown. The mind’s ability to connect the dots is powerful, but that power can be dangerous when left to its own devices, imagining the worst possible outcomes when robbed of a visual to go along with that sound it heard.
That fear of the unknown plays a bedrock role in Gerald's Game, but Flanagan still has to reckon with verbalizing that paranoia on some way other than Jessie looking terrified at various sounds. He goes in a different direction than the book here, opting to vocalize it in the form of another Gerald and Jessie who drop into a pretty clear devil/angel dynamic. Gerald represents her despair and hopelessness, and Jessie her will to survive. It’s not the most original attempt to bring an inner monologue into the realm of video, but it works here, externalizing her struggle in a way that doesn’t feel entirely un-genuine (though at times their discussions are a little too on the nose), giving the film something to structure itself around in between flashing back to memories of Jessie’s childhood. Those flashbacks allow DP Michael Fimognari to stretch his legs beyond finding ways to shoot a single bedroom set, bathing a lakeside in an unnatural red glow. It’s a good look, something that succeeds in spicing up the locations and color palette.
Competence tends to be a step up when it comes to Stephen King adaptations these days, and for the majority of its run time, Gerald's Game stands up with some of the stronger examples of the form. It’s a shame, then, that the script can’t hold up to the full story of the book. One aspect of Jessie’s plight plays heavily into the film’s final scenes, and the implementation is a complete disaster. It is tough not to leave it with a bad taste in the mouth, as it ends with such a profound whimper. The difficulty with a bad ending is how fresh it is in the mind as the credits roll, making it easy to discount or forget the good that came before it. That’s certainly a danger here (there’s honestly no underselling how bad the ending is), and Gerald's Game would be all the better if it ended ten minutes before it did. This is a case of an adaptation going astray by sticking a little too close to its subject matter, but it doesn’t outwardly ruin the experience of watching the movie. There’s far too much good about Gerald's Game for its bad ending to unravel it. Flanagan is too steady a genre hand to ignore it. Just, perhaps consider doing something else during the last ten minutes.