Gerald's Game (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Gerald’s Game (2017)

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Looking to revitalize their diminished sex life, Jessie and Gerald take a vacation up to a secluded cabin for a love-in.  When Gerald's tastes threaten Jessie's safety, her decision to fight back leaves her trapped in the cabin with only ghosts and a dog to keep her sanity in check.  Mike Flanagan directs Gerald's Game, with the screenplay written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, and stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood.

When I went to the library my mom had only one rule for me - take out as many books as you want but only if you're sure to read them.  Like many rules there was one exception, I was not allowed to take out Gerald's Game.  The cover of the bedpost and handcuffs wasn't like the usual monsters or psychopaths that graced most Stephen King novels.  This made it a tantalizing prospect and, when I was left alone at the library for once, I pulled it from the shelves and started reading.  The "danger" was real. I read the words and barely understood what they were waking up as I felt aroused by the King's descriptions of the room, flesh, and cuffs against Jessie's skin as she struggled to get herself free.

Mike Flanagan's adaptation of Gerald's Game keeps the illusion of kink with little of the danger, none of the arousal, and a scant whiff of the catharsis.  King's book was dedicated to six of the most important women in his life, and that framework of admiration carries through to the litany of mostly women voices that bring Jessie to freedom.  Flanagan's take makes this catharsis a performance, summoning first an audience of one man for Jessie to perform her pain for, and cramming the entire support network of the book into a mirror image of Jessie.  Adaptations are sometimes able to transcend their written material.  That does not happen with Gerald's Game.

Bruce Greenwood is fine in Gerald's Game but is written out of the 101 level edition of The Villain's Guide to Psychological Taunting.

The mostly male crew behind the camera creates a stage for Jessie, here played admirably by Carla Gugino, and the lighting makes it feel like a stage.  Whether this was an on-location shoot or a custom-built arena for Jessie's psychological battle matters little.  There's a cheap televisual haze on the backdrop, heightening the theatrical - not cinematic - elements of Jessie's performance.  Other color choices, like Gerald's (Bruce Greenwood) black boxers tight against his erection on Jessie's white slip, set this up as direct a good and evil struggle.  These choices might work on a stage where the artifice and emotion can overwhelm the audience's suspense of disbelief.  In front of the intimacy of a camera Jessie's struggles come across as staged and unreal.

I grew uneasy as Flanagan's Gerald's Game continued.  This wasn't because of some struggle in myself to understand why I was feeling aroused as with the novel.  Instead, I watched as a transformative story about women be reduced to misery porn for an audience primarily of men.  The biggest problem comes with Jessie's first hallucination, bringing Gerald back from the dead to taunt and torment her, before the Jessie's mirror image is created to give her some confidence.  Intentional or not, Flanagan's staging makes Jessie's survival a matter of bouncing off against a man first and finding strength in herself second.

There is such a fundamental misunderstanding of trauma, sexual or otherwise, at play that I've grown more disgusted with this adaptation of Gerald's Game the more distance I've gotten from it.  I have PTSD stemming from a year of abuse that left me permanently scarred physically, mentally, and emotionally.  This may be why King's original text aroused unknown feelings in me as I remembered the shame but also the smells, tastes, and feeling of concrete against my skin.  Trauma can't be packaged into a neat image that, once dealt with, leaves the survivor without those forever nagging scars.

I hate the way Gerald's Game framed the struggle being against men first, therapeutic reformation second, and that it can all be discarded so easily with one confrontation.  This is the exact kind of misery porn that Zack Snyder critiqued with Sucker Punch, the kind that says women's misery can be overcome for dramatic "feel good" moments so long as the structural issues around their suffering are never addressed.  There is no catharsis at the end of Gerald's Game.  The culture that led Gerald to seek domination over his wife is unchallenged, and once it turns out the traumatic bogeyman is real it places a too neat bow on Jessie's road to recovery.  If it's real, that means it can be killed, and if it can be killed, it's no longer a threat to take seriously.

This is the only scene where Mike Flanagan embraces the potential of cinema to communicate the scars of trauma as the eclipse stains everything about Jessie's childhood memory.

Of course this is a similar problem with King's text, but the internal monologue allows for a degree of complexity in communicating Jessie's desperation that the film simply cannot match.  Flanagan and cowriter Jeff Howard remove the complex web of women's voices emerging from Jessie's subconscious to make it a simple tale of man versus woman.  Combating sexism and trauma is not that easy and by glossing over the most important part - Jessie's recovery - Flanagan's take on Gerald's Game amounts to little more than an after school special about trauma.

What will Gerald's Game leave with me?  Barely anything.  I have my own nightmares to contend with, and as a cinematic venture Flanagan's trip through Jessie's psyche is too cheap looking and theatrical to have any sort of cinematic heft.  The only thing I'm left with is the sight of Jessie's open wounds in one painful sequence, but even those are easily covered up by a glove in time.  If trauma was this simple to conquer then it would leave a tiny scab to heal with no scarring.  If monsters could be beaten this easily they wouldn't persist in our lives.  The least Flanagan could have done was muster up some guilty thrills in the kink, but he can't even do that.  All that's left is the suffering of one woman amplified in her performance for a man, and there is no growth in that.

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Gerald's Game (2017)

Directed by Mike Flanagan.
Screenplay written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard.
Starring Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood.


Posted by Andrew

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  1. This movie put me to sleep.

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