I watched Gerald’s Game on Saturday after being told it was an amazing, horrifying film. I was ready to fully immerse myself in the story of a woman (Carla Gugino) being cuffed to a bed and left to escape after her husband (Bruce Greenwood) dies of a heart attack amid their attempted sex play.
I hadn’t read the Stephen King novel it was based on and had only that vague, non-spoilery synopsis to let me know what to expect. I found the beginning to be an awkward, accurate glimpse into the life of a thoroughly dysfunctional couple attempting to make things work. Gugino’s Jessie is immediately the better half, exuding concern and a need to be liked while also allowing us to see that she does have boundaries, such as when she grabs Gerald’s hand from exploring up her skirt while he drives.
Greenwood’s Gerald is immediately unlikeable as he angrily honks a clearly hungry and needy dog out of the road while chiding Jessie for her concern about the animal. Pair that with the wordless opening scene where he packs the handcuffs that will literally anchor the movie and you start to see that it may not be a game at all for Gerald.
Once in the bedroom, the movie really starts and you think that maybe these characters will be further fleshed out before things go completely sideways. Gerald, fresh from downing a Viagra and cuffing Jessie, is aggressive, violent, and immune to his wife’s pleas for him to stop and uncuff her. It’s almost a relief when he keels over dead, until you realize that he’s once again placed his wife in a seemingly inescapable situation.
After kicking Gerald to the floor, the Road Dog, and the hallucinations of her dead husband berating her, you think that you might be in for a madness to be overcome. When another spectre shows up in the form of Jessie herself, you think that it’s going to be a hell of a ride with the bantering of three people in one head, all trying to help or sabotage survival.
Then it happens. The thing that always happens when a woman is the protagonist of a thriller or horror movie. The nickname “Mouse” is thrown out there and Jessie reacts in denial and disgust. The line about “he’s not the first one to put you in handcuffs” is thrown out and you know. You just know that Jessie’s Daddy was a bad, bad man and now we have to see this woman’s childhood mixed in with everything else.
I’m sure it’s meant to be powerful to show Jessie confronting her demons when she has no place to go except inside her own head. I’m sure that it was meant to be inspirational somehow to survivors of abuse and let them know that if you can survive your assault, then you can survive anything. That it’s never too late to stop letting your past control you. That you can take the lessons you learned and apply them in the future.
All I could see was this:
Male protagonists find themselves in life or death situations and have to atone for their past sins to survive. Women find themselves in life or death situations and have to atone for the sins committed upon them to survive.
I was immediately annoyed and frustrated with the film. I gave minimal thought to the Moonlight Man. The epilogue fell on angry ears and I turned the movie off as soon as it was over.
I’m upset that such powerful acting, writing, directing, and talent was eclipsed (GET IT ANOTHER METAPHOR BEATEN TO DEATH) by a trope. I know I’ll revisit Gerald’s Game when I’m less on edge as a general rule, which may be about three years from now. I know that director Mike Flanagan is an immense talent and that filming a book such as this, one that seemed unfilmable, is a major achievement. Carla Gugino is able to carry this film and express such a wide range of emotion in every second she appears on camera. Bruce Greenwood is able to easily let you see what Jessie may have seen in Gerald while also exuding all of the qualities she chose to ignore.
But let’s find a new trope for women, shall we? Let’s give them backstories like Erin (Sharni Vinson) in You’re Next, a woman who kicks ass because her dad was a survivalist. It’s not perfect, but it’s leaps and bounds better than her toughening up to protect herself from the man raising her.