Mike Flanagan has been holding on to Gerald’s Game for a long time. He knew it wasn’t filmable, even when he would pitch it. After the film debuted Sunday at Fantastic Fest, Flanagan said the “movie in my head was so close to what ended up on the screen.”
It shows that Flanagan, who previously directed the gripping home-invasion thriller Hush, carried Gerald’s Game with him. He brings Stephen King’s 1992 novella to life for Netflix, and paints what was previously deemed unfilmable with vivid colors. The film focuses on Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), a married couple who retreat to a lakeside cabin to try to add some kink to their relationship, but Gerald abruptly dies mid-tryst, leaving Jessie handcuffed to the bed and alone with her thoughts—and a stray dog who’s awfully hungry.
Much like Hush, Gerald’s Game is sparse on soundtrack, but heavy on sound design. There are no strings to jump-scare you, just the looping sound of windchimes and nature, which is even more unnerving. Every pull on the bed post, every groan from the dog is amplified. The film deviates from the book by giving us duplicate Geralds and Jessies that appear to help her (and shake her confidence), and the inner dialogue that guides her into remembering childhood sexual abuse takes a different form. Jessie’s father is played by E.T.’s Henry Thomas, and if you’re a child of the ‘80s seeing in him in this role will be very distressing. Also distressing is a scene in which Jessie finally gets one hand free, which was best experienced in the company of others.
During a pivotal scene in which her father shames her into staying silent, there was an audible emotional response in the audience. Chiara Aurelia, who plays the younger Jessie, gives a powerful performance. The film’s exploration of how women are silenced, how they find their voice, and what they try to ignore no doubt found resonance with a Fantastic Fest audience that’s been having some complex and difficult discussions about assault and harassment this week.
Gugino’s performance in particular is stunning and raw. She’s the woman “alone in the dark” as one Gerald tells her, the “final girl” horror trope writ large. However, Flanagan doesn’t linger on Jessie’s torment—he uses her inner monologue to drive the action and plot. I was a Stephen King fan as a kid, but didn’t remember reading Gerald’s Game. The solar eclipse scene brought the memory of reading it flooding back. That’s how right Flanagan gets it.
The ending is the only time Gerald’s Game stumbles. After being in a cabin in the woods for so long, it kind of takes you out of the film. But what ends up on the screen—what was in Flanagan’s head for decades—feels thoroughly cooked. It’s not an easy movie to watch, but as Gugino commented after the screening, “I feel like we all went through something.”
Gerald’s Game debuts on Netflix on Sept. 29.