Sunday, 3 December 2017

Gerald's Game (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and his wife Jessie (Carla Gugino) go to a secluded lake house for a romantic weekend. However, after a bit of bedroom roleplaying goes hideously wrong, Gerald winds up dead with Jessie still handcuffed to the bed. With no-one around to help and time soon running out, she retreats into her own mind for support… and what she finds isn’t pleasant.

Gugino has to carry pretty much the entire film off of the back of her performance, and whether she’s showing self-doubt, self-arguing or self-regret, she is spellbinding as the captive with an incredibly complex psychology behind her. Doubly so for the version of her inside her head, embodying all of her strength and ability to reflect on the past. Greenwood starts out well enough as the over-enthusiastic role-player, but then really comes into his own as a counterpoint to the above in Jessie’s head, acting as a constant instiller of worry and paranoia. Henry Thomas as Jessie’s father is unnerving in how he plays a quiet abuser, Chiara Aurelia as the younger Jessie really drives home just what led her to her current predicament, and Carel Struycken as the Moonlight Man… works but ends up serving as the film’s biggest drawback by the end.

One of the trickiest hurdles when it comes to writing any story involving elements of psychology is being able to maintain its own existence within the mind. Even with the presence of the supernatural, psycho-horror relies on not only the potential darkness within the human mind but also enough clarity to keep that darkness in the mind. Plot holes concerning outside influence can be hand-waved away through the usual sense that reality is always being brought into question, but that ends up making the whole thing more of an uphill struggle. After seeing what Flanagan and Howard are capable of in this arena, their approach to this extremely high-concept idea is precisely what it called for.
Once the visions start and the inner monologue evolves into inner dialogue, the script keeps bringing up the specific reasons why certain thoughts and memories are sticking out at the moments they do, similar to the stream-of-consciousness flashbacks in Wild. Where this gets better is that, in terms of the characters existing in Jessie’s head, there is a remarkable amount of consistency to why they know what they know. Not delving into character history that would be unknown to the person imagining the conversation, but instead using already-existent memories to create not real people but an individual’s interpretation of real people. That is a hell of a tightrope to walk, but because of all this internal continuity, it makes the hellfire-red core of the story shine through even brighter.

On the surface, the decision to adapt this particular Stephen King story at this moment feels reactionary to the current presence of Fifty Shades in the box office. Hell, the very story concept of an adventurous night of love-making going horribly wrong feels like a darkly comedic answer to that same brand of dangerous sex that is actually a lot more vanilla than it keeps insisting to be. But this film is a lot more emotional than strictly sexual, focusing as much on Jessie’s mental breakdown as it does on ideas of restraint and domination. As we see Jessie talk to her own mind in its many forms, we see how years of trauma and fear made her into the woman we see in an impossibly helpless situation.
More so than BDSM depictions of domination in relationships, this film shows it in more of a power dynamic sense, showing how alpha-male arrogance can bend people into these sorts of positions, not just physically but mentally as well. It gets incredibly uncomfortable at times, particularly when looking at Jessie’s relationship with her father, and after sitting through this film, describing her connection with her father as a ‘relationship’ makes me feel like throwing up. I never thought I’d have to explain this, but I mean that in a good way. Same thing with the insanely visceral imagery making a pleasant return from Oculus, with injuries and the lingering stray dog bringing out a lot of wincing throughout. No joke, once it got to the cutting scene… I actually had to look away. Very few films nowadays get me to that point.

However, there is something that ends up digging into what this film has to offer, a seemingly minor thing that ends up creating massive dissonance by the finale. And it all has to do with how the world inside Jessie’s head and the real world overlap. Now, Flanagan and Howard are probably one of the few writing teams working today that I would trust to deliver exposition in a horror film; hell, it’s their work on Ouija: Origin Of Evil that made me realize that exposition and characters explaining the plot doesn’t have to be a bad or even boring thing in films. Stephen King, on the other hand? Rationalizing the weirdness in his stories has always been a problem. The man is really damn good at coming up with high-concept ideas, from the extra-dimensional conflicts of The Dark Tower to the demonic clown that feeds on fear from It.
However, he also has a problem with trying to explain the fantastical elements in real-world terms, resulting in more than a few stories where things would have been better left unsaid. The Langoliers turned a childhood story meant to create compliance into a species of creatures that literally eat time, The Tommyknockers went from a look at how the creative process can affect people into a yarn about a crashed UFO driving people crazy, and The Dark Half evolved from a look at the use of psuedonyms in writing into a story about a man with a literal malformed fetus stuck to his brain. That last one isn't that bad in execution, considering King’s own writing sensibilities as a whole, but in a story that is this textually and visually grounded in reality, such explanations don’t work out. Without getting into spoilers, the film takes a rather steep dive right at the end, personified in one last attempt to explain why Jessie saw the things that she did in a way that is less creepy and more awkwardly funny. After how good the rest of the film was, this is more than a little disappointing.

All in all, even with that last issue that I took with the overall film, this is still quite a tense thriller. The acting is top-notch, the visuals range from the claustrophobic to the vulgar to the graphic without missing a beat in the transitions, and the writing uses its seeming short-story-length idea to highlight power dynamics in relationships, both personal and sexual, and how they can torment those that can’t come to terms with them. Knowing King’s understanding of fear and Flanagan’s understanding of how fear changes people, this is precisely the kind of film you would get from such a cross-section… even with the slightly jarring conclusion.

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