Gerald’s Game tells the story of a couple who go on a trip into the woods to try out a few sex games in an attempt to save their relationship. Things go awry when the wife, Jessie Burlingame, is left handcuffed to a bed after her husband Gerald has a heart attack, and Jessie is left to find a way out of the handcuffs before starvation and dehydration kill her. But it soon becomes apparent that the handcuffs aren’t the only problem Jessie is facing—there’s a very hungry dog that happens to think Gerald looks very tasty but is starting to get an appetite for even fresher meat. But wait, what’s that near the window? Surely it’s the exhaustion and shock of everything that’s just happened, but Jessie swears she sees something gazing at her from the corner of her room.
Director Mike Flanagan, whose past works include Hush and Oculus, is no stranger to feminist films or having a female protagonist be her own hero. This adaptation of Stephen King’s original novel of the same name shows that monsters are in fact real, whether a “Moonlight Man,” escaped convict, father, or husband. The question is, how do you destroy a monster you’re not sure is real? Or better yet, how can you destroy a monster that is no longer present but nonetheless affecting you as if it were—because it’s present within you? Jessie has to come to terms with her own inner demons by getting out of the many shackles that have been placed on her throughout her life. As it turns out, handcuffs, pinky promises, and wedding rings aren’t all that different.
For a male-written novel and a male-written, male-directed film adaptation, Gerald’s Game has an amazing sense of the female gaze as Jessie looks back into her past and begins to realize who she is as an individual and what shaped her to be that way. The film manages to authentically depict women’s struggles and the mental effects of being restrained—both mentally and physically. Carla Gugino shows her tremendous acting skills while taking up most of the screen-time bedridden and in a constant anxious or drained state—there is no in-between. To pull off such a role is hard to do under these circumstances, especially with the complex backstory of Jessie—not to mention her extensive character development despite staying in one place for most of the film.
What makes this movie so impactful and memorable is the scene that introduces the Moonlight Man—and every scene including him from that point on. Gerald’s Game by no means is a horror film by my standards—it’s more so a psychological thriller—but this character’s scenes had me completely horrified. The overall design of his character is terrifying, even though he doesn’t look that physically different than any person you’d see in the street, given that they’re seven feet tall and strongly resemble a scarier Slender Man. Even when I was already aware of his presence, I still found myself cringing and jumping slightly whenever he was on screen. Perhaps it’s the blank stare of his eyes, which never reveal his thoughts or intentions. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re stuck wondering if he is real or whether he’ll appear the next time Jessie turns her head or closes her eyes. Either way, the Moonlight Man was able to do what most horror movies fail to do: genuinely scare me with more than a jump scare.
The only thing about Gerald’s Game that left me feeling unsatisfied was the ending. After being taken on such a mentally tiring, shocking, terrifying psychological ride which left me needing to occasionally pause the movie to gather myself, the final scene just didn’t sit well with me. This movie in its entirety is a tale of self-discovery; perhaps the ending doesn’t satisfy me because it’s not how I would want to end the story if it were my own. But it’s not my story. Maybe that was the best ending for Jessie as the individual she evolved to be.