Despite the fact that many of Stephen King’s novels have been adapted multiple times for the big and small screens, it took until 2017 for an adaptation of Gerald’s Game. In part, that’s because this particular novel, released in 1992, comes at the end of King’s classic era, which still tends to be the period in his body of work most mined for adaptations. Yet it’s also because this is one of King’s most challenging books to film, taking place, as it does, largely within the mind of Jessie (Carla Gugino), who is left handcuffed to a bed in a remote lake house after her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) dies in the midst of a bondage game. While the room, the house and, more distantly, the lake, play a key role in the atmosphere of King’s novel, most of the narrative follows Jessie through the psychological labyrinth she traverses to escape her predicament – especially her childhood, and her abusive relationship with her father Tom, played here by Henry Thomas in a series of flashbacks. More than any of King’s other novels, Gerald’s Game is a psychological drama, a sustained inner monologue in which the contingencies of the outside world – the physical particulars so critical to cinema – quickly fade away, leaving a brooding character study that feels more suited to the written word, and to the printed page, than any of his other works.
For that reason, Gerald’s Game is also peculiarly suited to the scaled-down ambitions of Netflix, unfolding as a chamber drama that might feel too stifling or stagey on the big screen, but which – often – works quite well on a more intimate and domestic platform. While director Mike Flanagan opens by following Jessie and Gerald as they make their way to the lake house, the outside world isn’t really a focus of the film, which tends to refrain from establishing shots except when they’re absolutely necessary. Instead, these opening moments establish a very particular kind of light – hazy, briny, sheeny – that percolates its way through the lake house when Jessie and Gerald arrive, collapsing the distinction between interior and exterior space, but also between day and night, in its wake. It is within this odd lightscape, so inextricable from the look of Netflix itself, that the film unfolds, forming the distended twilight state within which Jessie drifts in and out of consciousness.
From the beginning, that gives Gerald’s Game an eerie stillness, especially since Jessie and Gerald are the main people who ever appear in the film, with the exception of the flashbacks, along with a very unusual twist that emerges in the final scenes. For that reason, this lake house is the kind of space that already presupposes the gaze and presence of an intruder, if only because its hermetic isolation makes the viewer feel like an intruder, especially once Jessie and Gerald start on their sex games, which involves Gerald handcuffing Jessie to the bed and ravishing her body in rougher and more extreme ways. These are meant to restore their marriage, but they have just the opposite effect, since it turns out that Gerald enjoys player the role of rapist, and even parental abuser, effectively taking on the part of the intruder that the mise-en-scene seems to presuppose. In fact, Gerald actively pretends to be an intruder – it’s a part of his fantasy – encouraging Jessie to scream so that he can sadistically remind her that “there’s no one for miles.” Beyond a certain point, this role play starts to segue into reality, as he refuses to untie Jessie – first playfully, then earnestly – stylizing himself as “Daddy” and forcing her to resist “a rape-fantasy I never knew you had” as best as she is able while still being cuffed to the bedposts.
In the midst of this horrific display, Gerald has a heart attack and collapses to the floor, leaving Jessie attached to the bed with nobody around to hear her screams. Even more traumatically, perhaps, Gerald dies in the midst of his fantasy, revealing that living out his fantasy actually destroyed his marriage to Jessie, rather than healing or helping it. In the process, the very fantasy of marriage, and of their own marriage, is torqued, leaving Jessie in a limbic space that feels figurative as much as physical, as she tries to gain succour from the proximity of her husband’s body, even as that body and its appetites, are what have got her into this position to begin with. What ensues now plays out on three distinct levels, each of which could almost sustain a film on its own terms. The first and most immediate part of the film is an escape drama, as Jessie tries to manipulate her surroundings in order to break out of her cuffs, or at least keep herself sufficiently hydrated to make sure that she stays alive as long as possible. On their way to the lake house, Jessie notices a dog limping along the side of the road, and then feeds it when it arrives outside shortly after. Since Gerald left the front door slightly ajar before his “game,” the dog now comes in and starts tearing at his dead body, lingering around Jessie for long enough to make it clear he is waiting for her to expire as well. With this additional pressure, escape becomes even more critical than ever.
The second part of the film is probably the least effective, and plays out as a psychological drama. Shortly after Gerald dies, he appears again to offer Jessie counsel, as does a second version of Jessie herself, meaning that she spends a great deal of time on the bed watching her former relationship play out in front of her. This immediately offsets the unsettling ellipsis of Gerald’s death, and introduces a bickering tone to the film that cuts against the suspense as well, gradually settling into a two-hander that indulges some of King’s worst instincts. Piling on the symbolism and analogies, this by-the-numbers psychodrama works best when it approaches a psychological escape drama to rival the physical escape drama, in which Jessie tries to find a way out of her relationship, and Gerald, as a point of reference in her life. Even then, however, these scenes grow tiresome, often explaining the plot so thoroughly that there is very little suspense left to go on with. Beyond a certain point, they also expand to include flashbacks, as we learn that Jessie was abused as a child by her father in the midst of a solar eclipse, which has now burnt itself into her body and consciousness.
Fortunately, this second part of the film is eventually subsumed into the third, and most unsettling part, which takes the form of a home invasion drama. From the moment Gerald dies, the sense of an intruder grows even stronger, but also more opaque, since the role of an intruder has already been contained and co-opted by Gerald’s prostrate body. Over the rest of the film, four contenders for intruders emerge. The first two are Gerald himself and Jessie’s father, Tom, who also starts to appear in the bedroom to provide Jessie with advice. The third is the dog, which grows more aggressive as he senses Jessie losing the battle to live. The fourth, however, is the creepiest, a death-creature that Jessie starts to hallucinate as her body becomes weaker and her will to live attenuates. This creature initially appears in the corner of the room, but quickly becomes continuous with the syntax of the film itself, appearing at the junction between different images, or superimposed over the faces of Gerald and Tom whenever Jessie finds herself overwhelmed by what they are saying. While the creature nominally takes the form of a man, it seems like a supernatural entity, and only communicates with Jessie by showing her a bag that contains bones it has stolen from its victims, along with wedding rings, and other tokens, trinkets and mementoes of their lives.
To a certain extent, the death-creature distills the destructive tendencies of the other three invaders – Gerald, Tom and the dog. However, the death-creature distills the lightscape of the film as a whole, only appearing when the moon comes out, a trait that leads Gerald to dub him the “moonlight man.” During the flashbacks, Jessie’s abuse at her father’s hands becomes equated with the eclipse when it happened, meaning that her efforts to deal with that abuse require her to keep returning to that precise moment when the moon crossed the sun, and the light grew warmer, fuzzier and eerier, forming an “afternoon that never ended.” If Jessie’s abuse is the genesis of the film’s crepuscular lightscape, then the moonlight man is its destination, just as it is against this murky flux that the four main antagonists – Gerald, Tom, the dog and the moonlight man – tend to be most seamlessly fused. In a kind of visual and conceptual counterpoint to Fifty Shades of Gray, the spectacle of bondage therefore opens up a palette that is even more constrictive than the acts that precipitated it, trapping Jessie in a moody ambience that gradually consumes her will to live.
What makes Gerald’s Game so unusual, however, is that each of these four figure also end up helping Jessie out of her predicament. Without Gerald and Tom speaking to her from the side of the bed, she wouldn’t be able to take the last drastic step to free herself from her cufflinks. Similarly, without the dog starting to chew on her leg, she wouldn’t have woken up after fainting to the floor following her deliberate dislocation of her wrist to escape the cuffs. Finally, without the moonlight man appearing in her car after she leaves the house, she wouldn’t have crashed in precisely the right place for inhabitants of a nearby cabin to run out and call and ambulance. Instead, the film suggests, she would have continued to drive in a state of semi-consciousness until she blacked out, crashed or simply pulled over and died on a more remote stretch of highway. Even the murky light – the light of the eclipse, the light of the memory man – ends up serving Jessie well, preventing her from gaining too much awareness of her surroundings during the most critical part of her flight, and so allowing her to flee the scene without being too overwhelmed by its horror. Indeed, the moonlight man appears in the house on the way out, tacitly moving her in the right direction as her blood loss and physical shock starts to undercut her sense of orientation.
In other words, all the people whose love she cultivated, and who turned against her, end up helping Jessie in these final moments. Yet this doesn’t redeem them, or reinvest them with moral gravity, but instead divests Jessie’s return to society of any clear sense of closure. Just as the people who abused her also protected her, so the institutions that protect her are harder to trust, as she returns to a “new normal,” but is still revisited by the eclipse and the moonlight man ever night, realising that “the people who are supposed to protect you from monsters turned out to be the monsters themselves.” In the final and scariest twist of the film, it turns out that the moonlight man was in fact a real person, a serial grave robber known as the “crypt creeper” who was presumably only waiting in the lake house for Jessie to die, and only caused her to crash to try and get his hands on her body. Rather than being an ineffable bundle of moonlight, the moonlight man was real, and yet the only way that Jessie can measure that reality – the benchmark for reality in her world – is the abuse that shaped her world. In a final tautology, then, she reveals that the moonlight man was “more” than moonlight, but that this made him “as real as the eclipse.”
At the very moment at which the moonlight man seems to exceed the lineage of abuse that resulted in Jessie’s situation, he is therefore figuratively folded back into it. Similarly, at the very moment at which the lightscape that has obscured so much of Jessie’s abuse is reified as something that can be captured and prosecuted, it is collapsed even more thoroughly into the ambit of the eclipse. In both cases, the prospect of separating the protective and destructive tendencies of the paternal institutions surrounding Jessie is invoked, and then withheld, making for a kind of false twist, a twist that actually ends up reiterating the logic of the film, rather than departing from it in any real way. Yet that just makes this ending even more unsettling, especially because Flanagan, like King, reveals the “reality” of the moonlight man in such a cursory manner that it just reiterates his fugitive nature, as well as the fugitive nature of the lightscape that suffuses the film, and is only intensified in these final scenes, which appear to take place in the Pacific Northwest. At the very moment at which Jessie confronts the moonlight man in a court of law, he, Gerald, Tom and even the dog feel even more continuous with the law, and with the shape of Jessie’s life, than they did during Gerald’s game – and it is on that dissonant note that the film closes, making for one of the eeriest and most unsettling adaptations of King’s work I’ve seen in some years.