Gerald’s Game is a psychological exploration of a woman’s past scars while simultaneously acting as this surreal head-trip into her psyche, providing haunting imagery, stomach churning flashbacks that will make your blood boil, and an empowering conclusive act of grotesque bravery that will dare you to look away while attracting your gaze to the screen like a magnet. Carla Gugino gives the performance of the year as a woman handcuffed to a bed. Her struggle to break free, literally and figuratively, her being forced to confront her past and the scars that have tattooed themselves onto her soul, and maybe this crucible will free her from the monsters in her closet, if it doesn’t kill her first.
Gugino stars as Jessie. She and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) travel to their remote lake house to rekindle their marriage. As Gugino is handcuffed to the bed, Gerald has a heart attack and dies. With nobody around to hear her pleas for help, it is up to Jessie to figure out a way to claw her way out of this predicament as the clock winds down and before dehydration gets to her. It’s a very simple premise that Mike Flanagan handles effectively. He personifies Jessie’s inner monologue almost like the angel and devil that sit on each shoulder. Jessie’s angel in the room is herself, the part of her psyche that’s willing her on, while the devil is personified as her husband as he puts doubts into her mind. Throughout all of this, we’re given flashback sequences to Jessie’s childhood that help us understand her perspective a bit more, and the damage that was inflicted upon her that she was never able to shed because she was never able to truly confront those demons, until right now.
The second the first flashback appears, we get a sense for where it’s heading. The tense buildup to these specific moments will make your stomach churn in disgust and anticipation for it to be over, as we deal with subjects such as sexual abuse, manipulation, and confusion. Flanagan makes it a point to not exploit these moments for shock value, but rather he uses tone and assumption to tell us what is happening without needing to show it. The confusion, anxiety, and fear from the young Jessie is enough. Through these flashbacks, which eventually venture into surrealism, we are informed about the person that these experiences have shaped.
The surrealist flashbacks introduce a personification of death that is represented as a face that personifies fear. It is a physical manifestation of Jessie’s confrontation with mortality. It feels like this figure is chasing Jessie throughout the film as it gets closer and closer and, eventually, latches on to her. This “death” figure only appears a handful of times in the film, but its absence looms like a terrifying shadow over the proceedings of the entire film.
Flanagan shoots this the present time action in a meandering and almost observational manner. He shows us Jessie’s struggle, but never puts us in her shoes necessarily. The room never felt claustrophobic, or like it was closing in on her. Instead, it just felt like a room where a woman was struggling. A stray dog was feeding on her husband’s dead body and the movie just built its momentum brick by brick until it exploded into a conclusive final action that felt shocking due to the imagery Flanagan painted. At the same time, Flanagan created a moment that felt empowering and definitive for a character that needed to confront her past in order to overcome the darkness inside her. Jessie’s final action, and her explanation to this personification of her husband, will hit you in the gut with its intense, raw insight into a character whose identity has been intertwined with her trauma. This moment felt like an empowering come back against the people responsible for the chains that have been clamped around her wrists since childhood.
The conclusion of this movie had me conflicted, however. There is a moment where it should have ended that would have made for an ending that resonated deeply with audiences. Instead, the movie kept going. It found this strange need to over explain its themes and what it was about. It needed to put an exclamation point on its subtext and themes, when all we needed was a period. It left us with a final scene that felt resolute and powerful, however. While the final minutes leading up to that final scene felt like the movie trying too hard to pound its themes into our head, the final scene felt just right. It’s a conflicting feeling for sure, but a feeling like that doesn’t negate the movie that preceded it. Gerald’s Game is still a powerhouse thriller led by a powerhouse performance.