Monday, November 18, 2019

King Week: Total eclipse of the heart

In which Halloween-related marathoning has resulted in reviews of several spooky movies from the mind of the world's favorite horror author, Stephen King.


Directed by Mike Flanagan
Written by Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan (based on the novel by Stephen King)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The story goes that Gerald's Game was something of a passion project for Mike Flanagan, who has these past few years made a name for himself as one of the big dogs of B-level crap horror, starting (more-or-less) with the very good Oculus and continuing through all sorts of things I haven't seen, culminating this past weekend with full-on A-level horror in Doctor Sleep, which I personally still have some (unreasonably) high hopes for, though its commercial failure has perhaps ensured that Flanagan will be heading right back to the crap mines.  You know, I imagine one could make an arbitrarily large number of horror movies about Ouija boards, if one had to.  Anyway, the story is that Flanagan would always drag a copy of Stephen King's Gerald's Game around to meetings, hoping to prompt conversations and maybe get somebody interested, and, eventually, he did, insofar as there's always somebody around at Netflix that can be gotten interested in just about anything, and apparently all of them have access to millions of dollars.  The curious part about Flanagan's perseverance is that Gerald's Game is considered very minor King, even by King aficionados, and, on top of that, basically unfilmable: it has but two characters, one of 'em dead practically before the book's even started, while the whole narrative takes place in a single room and, more to the point, in its protagonist's head.

Judging by the results of Flanagan's film, and consulting with a summary of the novel, I really can't say why its story would be considered hard to put onscreen.  There are scores of single-location thrillers; even a non-trivial number of single-character thrillers (which, anyway, Gerald's Game isn't).  Maybe it's just that the protagonist spends the entire present-tense portion of the story in a state of pronounced undress, though if that were the problem, it's a problem that seems to have been pretty readily solved by way of the costuming decision that put Carla Gugino in a decisively-unslutty piece of "lingerie" (it would barely be unreasonable as a dress), something that, if you wanted to be charitable, quietly says something about the character's not-entirely-positive view toward sex, but is mainly there as a courtesy to Gugino, and because the movie, wisely enough, doesn't want to conflate her character's life and death struggle with literal and figurative chains with something that's actually sexy.  So maybe there was something about it structurally, and Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard were just that ingenious in rejiggering King's story so that it made good cinema.  In fact, while it is very good cinema, maybe what it resembles most is not an adaptation of a novel but an adaptation of a stageplay (I wound up thinking a lot about Linklater's Tape while watching it, and while Gerald's Game could plausibly be a one-woman show, I'd think you'd need at least three actors for it to flow properly and not get aggravating).  The difference is that in the movies you don't need the heroine to be played by twins to get the most out of its scenario.  You just need some nice, precise editing, provided here by... well, Mike Flanagan, who's made a thing out of editing his own films, and, by the evidence of Oculus and this, this has been because nice, precise, even show-offy editing is the single most important part of this director's style.

So the "unfilmable" story that Gerald's Game tells is that of Jessie Burlingame (Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), a rich couple who've retreated from New Orleans to an isolated vacation home in Alabama—this being a cosmetic change from the text, just to maybe get away from that whole "Maine" fixation King has going on—with the avowed goal of resparking their sex lives.  Which is why Jessie has packed a blue nighty that practically goes down to her knees, and Gerald has packed a pair of real-deal, stainless-steel, police-issue handcuffs.  The obvious disconnect between the spouses' specific intentions becomes much more urgent as Gerald's bondage scene becomes intruder roleplay and Gerald's Game starts flirting with becoming a marital rape-tinged version of Misery, a flirtation that only ends when Gerald has a heart attack and dies.  This relieves Jessie of her immediate problem of being forced into sex, but leaves her with several new problems, firstly a dead husband, secondly a hungry feral dog that got in through the door Jessie neglected to close, and which pretty soon starts tearing off pieces of Gerald, and, thirdly and most importantly, still being chained to the bedposts of a very sturdy bed.  And here, as they say, her troubles began.

It's also where that nice, precise editing comes in as Jessie, prompted by the sight of her husband being slowly devoured, breaks off into a structured hallucination/Brechtian device that sees her talking to a pair of psychological projections, sometimes described as a devil and an angel on her shoulders (although I think this is a bit reductive), represented physically by her husband and by a version of herself no longer interested in hiding her true feelings behind polite and comforting lies.  They become her companions and advisors as she talks herself through the survival thriller the movie's become, which winds up coterminous with a vigorous self-examination and the redemption of her wounded psyche.  Jessie, it turns out, has a childhood secret that is immediately guessed the instant the film raises hints of it, and as much as she needs to get out of these cuffs, she needs to escape her past, too.

If it has something of the complexion of a stageplay, it also feels a little musty, like a stageplay written in, at latest, the 1970s, and then adapted contemporaneously to film, only with cameras from the future.  It's hardly jarring, because its themes are sadly evergreen, but the mild anachronism (born of being faithfully adapted from a book written in 1992 and perhaps behind the times even then) suggested by a jobless, friendless housewife with almost four decades of repression behind her tends to be confirmed by a reference to how Gerald's law firm might deal with the "scandal" of, er, an old guy who died boning his wife in the midst of some vanilla bondage.  Think of the headlines, yeah?  Still, give it credit: if this were a movie from 197X, it would have earned the kind of tremendous reputation it wasn't likely to get in 2017, when stories of feminine reclamation weren't as thin on the ground and weren't as uniformly written by men.  Not that being written by men is necessarily a bad thing in this case, though in being bound by the needs of brevity, Flanagan and Howard, at least—I cannot speak to King—have fashioned a model of damaged femininity that appears to have exactly two data points defining her life, both of them related to sexual abuse.  On the other hand, Jessie's practiced lack of personality is kind of the point, and it's even brought up by her more strident self.

Either way, Gerald's Game initially does a fantastic job of combining its fundamental draw, the thriller centered around Jessie's unlikely but believable horror, with a headier psychothriller loaded up with a surfeit of (admittedly) sometimes-didactic sociological observation.  If it's all a wee bit schematic, you might not notice in the execution, driven as it is by its unsettling, bouncy cutting between Jessie's imaginary friends, who aren't required to maintain any sort of consistency in space (and who therefore underline her own potentially-fatal immobility).  It's driven even moreso by Gugino and Greenwood themselves, who do remarkable work in sketching out a marriage that's collapsing out of mutual boredom in just a few minutes of screentime, then (in Greenwood's case) subtly moves from Jessie's actual husband to just a collection of things she hated about her husband, albeit one that she's cast in a necessary role in her psychodrama, a taunting taskmaster in untrustworthy skin that, now, she can finally overcome.  (Given his last act on Earth, Gerald's Game is maybe even too generous to its title character, but I think it rides the line just about perfectly.)

Nevertheless, Gugino is absolutely the show here, charting a satisfyingly credible physical and psychological deterioration, and terrific in both her roles, particularly as the Jessies start to merge as the movie heads toward its climax.  It's almost entirely through Gugino, then, that the twinned entertainment and edification of the piece are achieved through exactly the same means, which is great, though perhaps it could have leaned even more heavily on her basic survival processes than it already does: the scenario is, to be frank, maybe a little too spare.  One might also conceive of some much less extreme ways that Jessie might have tried to deal with her unfortunate position first (it's hard to say without literally being on that bed, though I like the movie enough to have made some pantomime attempts), but I happily concede that would be the worst kind of nitpicking, since the extreme ways are what we came to see, after all.  Still, any story that chains a human body to a bed for days and doesn't even acknowledge that it is, at least, going to be sitting in a pool of its own urine is, of course, only calling attention to the fact of its absence.  (Even Cujo managed that much.)

And I did, you'll recall, say "initially"; which means that Gerald's Game is bound to trip up sooner or later.  I almost want to say it does so much sooner than later, spending just enough time keeping us chained to the bed alongside Jessie and trapped in her perspiration-soaked, effectively-real-time thriller—a good 35 minutes, no less—that when it launches into the first of a few lengthy flashbacks, it's not only an intrusion into a narrative defined totally by Gugino and Greenwood's presence (even if Chiara Aurelia is solid as yet a third, much younger Jessie), it's also an unwanted release valve for the pressure the film's done everything in its power to build up.  But then, the flashbacks are pretty instrumental to the story, and get better as they go along—the abuse scenario it posits winds up in a somewhat unexpected and extraordinarily creepy place—and, washed in the burnt oranges of a phantasmagoric, extremely-symbolic eclipse, they're the means by which Flanagan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari provide the film its most indispensable visual.  (Not counting, anyway, the film's foundational visual, of Gugino cuffed to a bed.)

So maybe Gerald's Game only truly stumbles when it accepts that King's inclusion of the possible supernatural was somehow a necessary part of its adaptation, though even this isn't too bad at first—it may have a silly name and it may, as I realized with a very unintended laugh, a profoundly misguided visual implementation that makes our "Moonlight Man" a cousin to Mr. Homn—but if what we're dealing with is a personification of Death wrought by a dried-out brain, one could do worse.  Gerald's Game can absolutely do worse, however, and there's no denying that it goes entirely off its rails in the final ten minutes, tacking into a crazy-long epilogue that is just majestically bad.  Presumably what people mean when they spit, "Stephen King endings," this ending proposes to explain things that needed no explanation, while explaining them in what is also the most preposterous manner conceivable, and in ways that are downright audacious in their complete lack of connection to anything the story was ever actually about.  But it is magnetic in its badness.  It carries Jessie's own emotional arc to a close in a way that doesn't feel remotely natural, but somehow kind of works in its own stupid, batshit way, arriving at last upon a very obvious (but very correct) final shot.  I very much dislike this game's ending, but I can't say I have no use for it; and, as for the rest of it, I like that an awful lot indeed.

Score: 8/10

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