Gerald’s Game (2017) – Defined by Constraints

By David J. |


One of the most common complaints levied against horror films is that their characters tend to make bad decisions. Watching the action unfold, waiting for the orchestral blast of a jump scare, whether in the theater or in your own living room. You can expect your experience to be interrupted with:  

“What are you doing?!”,

“Don’t go there!”

“Why don’t you call the cops?”

If only the characters on screen had the benefit of the audience’s wisdom—or better yet, common sense—they might all make it to the end. We take it for granted that they can objectively see danger and react to it from our frame of reference. Escape is a problem to be solved.

Gerald’s Game (2017)

In watching Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Gerald’s Game, we get to see the danger from a different side. Of all the filmed interpretations of King’s work, the setup most resembles Misery: a person in a confined space, cut off from the outside world, surviving horrible ordeals and using ingenuity to escape. Misery is effective because it presents a seemingly impossible situation, one the audience cannot work out any better than the protagonist. The tension in waiting for a solution is what keeps that film thrilling throughout.

Gerald’s Game starts in a similar place, but the process of solving is framed in a much more personal way—the solution hides in Jessie’s understanding of herself. In all of his films, Flanagan goes out of his way to thoroughly establish his characters, much more than might seem necessary.

Oculus (2013)

In Oculus (2013), siblings Tim and Kaylie are repeatedly shown through expository scenes, flashbacks, and their combative conversations with each other, not only how they have been damaged by the events they experienced together as children, but how they developed completely different worldviews in isolation from each other, each with their own limitations and flaws.

Hush (2016)

Hush (2016) establishes Maddie as not only deaf, but reclusive and reassured by a controlled environment, which highlights the fragility of her coping mechanisms in the face of a home invasion. Even his earliest theatrical work, Absentia (2011), complicates Tricia’s grief over her missing husband with a recovering drug-addicted sister and a guilt-riddled romance with the detective who investigated the disappearance. We understand these characters and their existing problems, and why they’ve made mistakes long before the real danger arrives.

Mike Flanagan - Hush (2016)

Gerald’s Game is like a studied dissection of character motivation, peeling away layer upon layer of self-deception like a therapy session at gunpoint. Each breakthrough Jessie makes in terms of her survival, from preventing dehydration to her final attempt at escaping, results from a confrontation with a painful memory or truth. We watch as she reveals to herself the reality of her failing marriage, her excuses for perpetuating it, and the misguided notions that caused her to enter into it in the first place.

Before the climax of the film we come to a tragic—but all too relate-able—event in her adolescence, and yet it’s not the event nearly so much as the coping mechanisms taught to her that instruct every misstep she has made in her adult life. This is a moment where we might be tempted to say, not only toward a horror film, but to a friend or neighbour or family member in our own lives:

“What are you doing?!”,

“Don’t go there!”

“Why don’t you call the cops?”

But by the time we think to say that to Jessie, Flanagan has shown us why she wouldn’t have listened. His films work because his characters fight against themselves as much as their tormentors, and by the end we clearly understand their struggles. It is now obvious why this King novel was his first choice for an adaptation—Gerald’s Game is a perfect example of his craft.

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