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'Gerald's Game' well worth playing

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We’re in the midst of a Stephen King moment.

If it seems like the master of horror has achieved a sort of pop culture ubiquity recently, well … that’s because he has. Big-screen cinematic projects (“IT,” “The Dark Tower”) and television series (“Mr. Mercedes,” “11/22/63,” “The Mist,” “Under the Dome”) have been abundant over the past couple of years, but the latest new offering lands somewhere in the middle.

“Gerald’s Game” is a Netflix original movie – neither a theatrical offering (though I did see it at the movie theater thanks to a promotional showing courtesy of King’s WKIT/WZON radio station) nor an episodic series. It’s based on the 1992 novel of the same name following one woman’s harrowing and heartrending efforts at survival following an incident that left her isolated, as well as her struggles with the thoughts and memories the circumstances bring bubbling to the surface.

Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino, “The Space Between Us”) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”) have been having some problems with their marriage. Neither one of them has been particularly happy for a long time, so in an effort to reignite their relationship, the two plan to spend a weekend away at their isolated lake house.

Part of Gerald’s plan is to rekindle their sex life – and his method of doing so involves handcuffing Jessie to the bed. Despite her best efforts, Jessie simply can’t engage and demands that Gerald uncuff her. Unfortunately, the combination of exertion and a certain little blue pill proves to be too much for him and he suffers a fatal heart attack.

And so Jessie is left there, shackled to the bedposts as her husband cools on the floor. There’s no one around – and no one expected to be around for some time. The fear, the pain and the loneliness leave Jessie panicked and delirious, having conversations with not only her dead husband, but with herself as well. She’s also left to deal with the unwanted attentions of a very hungry stray dog.

Her emotional situation is compounded by long-buried memories of an emotionally scarring incident from her childhood involving her father (Henry Thomas, “Ouija: Origin of Evil”) and his actions during a total eclipse of the sun.

Oh, and there are periodic nocturnal appearances by a ghoulish, mute giant (Carel Struycken, TV’s “Twin Peaks”) who may or may not really be there.

In order to survive and escape a gruesome fate, Jessie must confront her inner (and potentially literal) demons and set herself free – free from not only her present situation, but from the ghosts of the past.

I was mildly skeptical about this project when I first heard about it. “Gerald’s Game” is a largely interior novel, one built around an understanding of the gradual-then-rapid degradation of Jessie’s state as she struggles against her bonds. It seemed like a wickedly difficult narrative to represent in an effective visual manner.

My skepticism was unwarranted.

Director Mike Flanagan has built a solid reputation on the creation of compelling horror films. Flanagan – who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Howard – offers up a clear vision and a creative solution to the novel’s interiority. The end result is a taut thriller that captures the terror of isolation, thrusting its heroine into ever-increasing crises – both internal and external – as the shadows loom larger.

Even the film’s aesthetic is in service to that sense of aloneness. The lion’s share of the action takes place in that single bedroom; rather than be hamstrung by potential visual limitations, Flanagan leans in. The shifting angles of the camera serve to make the room feel larger than it is, while the director’s use of shot repetition makes it feel smaller. It’s vaguely disorienting and absolutely perfect for the tone being set.

But let’s be clear – none of this matters a lick without a strong performance from the lead. The weight of the narrative rests almost exclusively on Jessie; without her, there’s nothing there. Fortunately, Gugino proves to be more than up to the task. It’s an absolute tour de force of a performance, one rendered almost exclusively through voice and expression. It’s a portrait in terror, compelling and magnetic. Just an exceptional turn.

The supporting cast does its part and then some. Greenwood is excellent as Gerald, presenting a package of smug superiority and wounded smarm that proves an ideal counterbalance for Jessie’s journey. Thomas offers up a veneer of respectability masking something base and manipulative; one scene in particular will wrench at your guts. And Chiara Aurelia (“Big Sky”) will break your heart with her portrayal of a younger Jessie.

Movies like “Gerald’s Game” are one more reason to be glad that Netflix is undertaking to create original programming. It’s a well-made film that will capture far more eyeballs on a streaming platform than it ever would have via theatrical release. It is thoughtful and tense, with moments of pathos and a surprising sense of the visceral.

In short, it’s a game well worth playing.

[4.5 out of 5] 

Last modified on Thursday, 28 September 2017 13:35

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