Note: this review is (relatively) spoiler-free, so dig in!
At the end of September, Netflix released the last of the month's new slate. Among the additions was an original film from the streaming site called Gerald's Game, based on Stephen King's 1992 novel of the same name. The adaptation promised a pretty straightforward plot: Man and woman go to woods to save their marriage. Man handcuffs woman to bed for kinky sex times. Man dies of heart attack. Madness ensues. You might be asking yourself how a woman chained to a bed makes for a compelling horror movie, but I'm hoping I can adequately peel back the layers and show you that the movie goes way beyond that seemingly basic premise.
1. It's a Simple Concept That's Well-Executed
As I already mentioned, the story itself is pretty basic. That said, there are other elements that add tension to every scene. For one, there's a hungry stray dog that seems adamant about snacking on the very dead Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), while Jessie (Carla Gugino) desperately tries to fend it off from her spot on the bed. Jessie also hallucinates a physical manifestation of her subconscious (which looks exactly like her, except not as sweaty and not as chained to the bed), as well as one of her dead husband. The two interact with Jessie in a sort of "good cop, bad cop" dynamic, helping her figure out how to get free.
In addition to all these elements, there are flashback sequences that help inform Jessie's current state, as well as one terrifying monster that I'll get to in a little bit. All of these aspects combine to make one sincerely tense and gripping film. Yes, it's a film where a woman is chained to a bed for pretty much the entire running time, but not one minute drags. And that's pretty spectacular.
2. It's Chock-Full of Brilliant Performances
One of the things that really helps sell the film is the sheer artistry of Gugino. She offers two incredible performances: one as the real Jessie, who is slowly dying on a bed in lingerie, and the other as hallucination Jessie, who really wants to get her physical body free. There's something about the way Gugino lives the horror that makes her performance so riveting. She seems to be so lost in her character that, in certain moments, you really believe everything she's emoting.
Gugino's performance is supported by the menacing condescension of her smarmy husband, Greenwood, who pulls off the whole "secret douchebag" thing very well. But even the much smaller characters — Jessie's father (Henry Thomas) and the 12-year-old version of Jessie (Chiara Aurelia) — shine in their minimal roles. All of these turns swirl together to make an incredibly believable and powerful story, horror aside.
3. One Aspect of the Film Will Keep You Up at Night
Remember that terrifying monster I mentioned earlier? He's referred to as the "Moonlight Man" during the film, and I promise he'll give you nightmares. During her first night, Jessie hallucinates a large man standing in the corner. He has white skin, a bald head, and hauntingly ghoulish eyes. He's abnormally tall, and his overly long limbs dangle in strange and unsettling ways. As soon as Jessie notices him, he ambles from the shadows in the corner and opens his special box. It's filled with treasures: jewelry and bones and other miscellaneous trinkets.
The Moonlight Man pops up a couple of other times. At one point, Jessie awakens to find he's licking her toes and kicks him off. She comes to believe he's death himself and that he's there to collect her dying soul. I don't want to give away too much else about the Moonlight Man and his part in the plot, but let's just say he's the creature that really stuck with me after watching the film. You're going to be checking the darkest corners of your house for a while, I promise.
4. There's One Especially Gruesome Scene That You Won't Forget
If the slow psychological scares and the horror of the Moonlight Man don't get you, then this one scene will. Again, I don't want to spoil it, but let's just say Jessie's only way to escape is very gruesome and bloody, and it's depicted with brutal and graphic realism. A friend of mine said he literally barfed after watching it. Another confirmed that all of his co-workers were just as disturbed as he was. I'm not too queasy when it comes to things like this, and I definitely wasn't that physically affected, but let's just say it's a lot. There's a treat for every kind of horror fan in Gerald's Game.
5. The Thematic Significance Is Striking and Nuanced
In trying to free herself, Jessie must reckon with the actions that put her in these handcuffs in the first place. This is why we go into flashbacks: to uncover her disturbing past, and to figure out why she married a slightly abusive garbage monster like Gerald. The incredible thing is, each specific recollection gives her information about how she can escape. The more she digs in and processes her own traumas, the closer she gets to freeing herself from the literal shackles that keep her chained to the bed. Once she's truly reconciled with everything that's happened to her, she gets the final piece of the puzzle that will give her freedom.
This kind of thematic pay-off is so striking and hard to ignore. While Jessie is literally handcuffed, her emotional journey is so steeped in metaphor that her allegorical story can clearly apply to any victim of trauma. And that chilling epiphany is perhaps what makes Gerald's Game such a great film. It's definitely horror, and it will definitely scare you, but once you scrape off the skin and look at all the tendons underneath (wink wink), you'll find that it's so much more.