dir. Mike Flanagan
scr. Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan
Longtime fans of Stephen King had plenty of reason to worry when The Dark Tower finally snuck into theaters like a fart in church, but 2017 has turned out to be one of the best overall years for adaptation of the horror legend’s work in quite a while. Mike Flanagan’s feature version of this dark and troubling minor gem is surprisingly rich and controlled, and it’s one of the best showcases the great Carla Gugino has ever had as an actor.
It’s also a very hard film to recommend because when it gets ugly, it gets as ugly as you can possibly imagine.
Mike Flanagan has been building a solid, sturdy filmography, with no home runs so far but a whole lot of doubles or triples. He’s had one film essentially fall off the face of the Earth (Before I Wake) for no good reason, and that sort of thing can derail a career. Flanagan’s response? He took a book that seemed like a losing proposition as a film and he turned it into one of the year’s essential horror films. Hell, I’d argue that unless you see Gerald’s Game, you aren’t really having a conversation about the year’s best films full-stop.
The set-up is as simple as it is horrible: Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie (Carla Gugino) decide to visit their remote lake house for a weekend to try to kickstart the sexual side of their marriage. Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the headboard and abruptly drops dead on top of her, kicking off one of the most harrowing stories of how to survive a trauma that I’ve ever seen on film.
Finding a way to tell this story and keep it active and engaging is, of course, the single biggest challenge. Stephen King had the benefit of first-person voice to tell the story, but unless you want your whole movie to be a shot of a woman lying on a bed while she speaks in voice-over, you’ve got to try something else. The solution here is elegant and significant; it allows Greenwood a continued presence in the movie, and it allows room for Gugino to play several different things within each scene. There’s a fiendish timetable to the way the film drops each new horrifying complication to the scenario, and there are moments here that are stark and scary and shockingly simple. Flanagan reminds us of the horrifying potential of something as mundane as a shadow, and he has a real knack for finding the most squirm-inducing way to play these beats.
Gugino’s career has been a study in how an actress takes control of things by both playing to and playing against the male gaze. She’s acutely aware of how she’s been cast for visual impact in certain roles, but she has also clearly pushed for more and more control of things, and the projects that she’s had the most control of reflect a powerful feminist voice. Jessie is a woman who has some deep secrets, and watching Gugino dig through all of them and have to confront some of the hardest truths that anyone can grapple with is emotionally devastating here. This is not just some empty horror thrill ride. This is the story of a woman who has been broken for most of her life finally facing trauma and finding a way to regain some strength and control. She’s a fighter, and it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen in anything this year.
Bruce Greenwood is a guy who I always enjoy, and he’s a terrific piece of shit here. What I find fascinating is how he can turn that charisma of his to relentless decency and strength (a la his crucially important performance in the 2009 Star Trek), or to something black and rotten like Gerald here. He’s not “evil” in any easy or traditional sense, but something in Gerald is wired very wrong, and the five minutes after those handcuffs first go on is one of the scariest stretches in any film this year. As soon as Gerald gets a whiff of real fear from his wife, it’s like his eyes go black and roll back so he can feed. It’s ugly, and the way Greenwood removes that mask to show the cruelty hiding beneath it is memorable.
At this point, Mike Flanagan has to be considered one of the heavy hitters in the genre. Gerald’s Game may be playing on Netflix, but it is as major a film as anything released to theaters this year. It is horror on a human scale, more affecting because of how personal it is, and it continues this new explosion of effective Stephen King adaptations. This belongs in the same rarified air as Misery and Shawshank Redemption and The Dead Zone and Christine when we talk about movies that get Stephen King 100% right, while its incendiary sexual politics make it an essential text for our tumultuous times.