Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Flanagan Wins 'Gerald's Game'

Although I’m sitting down to craft a proper review of the new Netflix film GERALD’S GAME, I suspect it may turn into a love letter to the film’s director, Mike Flanagan. We’ll see how it goes, but don’t say you weren’t forewarned.

GERALD’S GAME is based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Stephen King. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a married couple who—hoping to plug some of the widening crevices in their marriage—travel to their remote vacation cabin for a weekend of romance and reconnecting. Oh, and a sex game that leaves the wife handcuffed to a bed and the husband dead on the floor following an untimely heart attack. The book is one of King’s most underrated works—and this writer’s longtime personal favorite. It’s essentially a character study of the protagonist, Jessie Burlingame, and how a hopelessly desperate situation triggers a stress response that manifest in a cast of internal voices that include "Goody” (a somewhat Puritanical version of herself), an old college friend named Ruth Neary, and Nora Callighan, her former psychiatrist. Adding to the horror of her isolation and encroaching death, she seemingly hallucinates a deformed apparition whom she dubs “The Space Cowboy,” a manifestation of death that carries a fishing basket filled with jewelry and human bones, and experiences the bonus repulsion of a stray dog that wanders into the cabin and begins to devour her husband’s decomposing corpse.

The novels in King’s expansive canon of work fall primarily into three categories: the sprawling epic (i.e. The Stand, It, The Dark Tower); the small town visited by something evil (i.e. Salem’s Lot, Needful Things, Under the Dome, Desperation, THE TOMMYKNOCKERS); and character-focused psychological studies (i.e. Dolores Claiborne, Misery, The Shining, The Dark Half, Bag of Bones). Arguably, although everything is a subjective matter of preference, he excels in writing the latter. Like grieving widower Mike Noonan, or wrongfully accused domestic servant Dolores Claiborne, or aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance, GERALD’S handcuffed housewife Jessie is sent on a (largely) psychological journey that dovetails with the physical threats. It’s the character’s ultimate arrival on the other side of their psychological hauntings that will either save or destroy them in the end.

Anyone who’s ever read GERALD’S GAME was likely left with the same feeling as I was: This was a book that could never be adapted for film. Single setting,  single character—in her underwear—talking to voices in her head, sexual fetishes with trigger potential, incest (another trigger)—all  elements of the book that would appear to render this an un-filmable GAME.

Enter Mike Flanagan.

For the uninitiated, Flanagan is the writer, director, and editor of five feature films—all genre fare—including the well-received HUSH, OCULUS, and OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL. He’s also been tapped amidst much fanfare to write, direct, and (yes) edit the upcoming television series adaption of Shirley Jackson’s seminal THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE.  Even within this admittedly modest catalog, Flanagan has established himself as a filmmaker who wears his movie influences proudly on his sleeve while subverting those inspirations to create wholly unique films. In 2016’s HUSH, for example, he took his adoration of WAIT UNTIL DARK, the 1967 thriller in which a blind Audrey Hepburn evades—and ultimately does battle with—a trio of drug smugglers-turned-killers who’ve infiltrated her home, and explored how an alternate sensory deficit—this time deafness—would impact a similar narrative set-up.

He’s also proven himself as adept at rising to a challenge. Case in point: Taking on the task of crafting a sequel to OUIJA, an inferior 2014 studio horror movie that lacked everything a genre film should have—especially suspense. By opting for a period-piece prequel, Flanagan was able to pull off an unlikely feat; namely, creating a far superior film to the painfully bland original and giving the property a genuine franchise potential its predecessor couldn’t. He had Hollywood’s attention, and they were taking notes.

What sets Flanagan apart from his genre brethren is that he understands the difference between startling an audience and scaring them. It’s in this idea of establishing a pervasive sense of dread and tension that builds steadily without release in favor of stringing together sequences of jump scares that Flanagan has captured the admiration and adoration of increasing hard to impressive—and even harder to scare–horror loyalists.

And that brings us to GERALD’S GAME, Flanagan’s reverent—if not entirely faithful—film adaptation of the unadaptable novel referenced earlier. In crafting the film treatment, Flanagan (with co-writer Jeff Howard) makes some interesting—and always logical—tweaks to King’s source material that pay off artistically without sacrificing its emotional center.

In terms of variances between book and film, college roomie Ruth and former shrink Nora from the novel are excised in favor of trimming the cast of internalized characters. It’s clear that what drives much of the escalating tension in Flanagan’s film version is the sense of claustrophobia inside the lake-house bedroom and the isolation in which Jessie finds herself trapped. Flanagan wisely choses to keep the people—even the imagined ones—to the bare minimum here, so he opts to limit Jessie’s internal dialogues to her titular husband and more assertive self, with her father and younger self filling in some blanks via memory flashbacks. Likewise, the book’s “Space Cowboy” is still a threatening presence; here, he’s reimagined slightly as a similarly misshapen “Moonlight Man.” In lesser hands, the whole affair could have come off as an overcrowded stage play or—worse—some cartoonish, second-rate episode of HERMAN’S HEAD; fortunately, Flanagan knows the occupancy limits in any given scene and knows where to seat his dinner guests around the table.

Flanagan also opts to make Jessie less complicit in her husband’s poorly-timed demise. In the novel, she’s triggered by his aggression as the rape fantasy begins to play out and kicks him in the chest, thus sparking the heart attack that leads to his fall off the bed and deathblow to the head. In the film version, prescription Viagra deals the fatal cardiac arrest. Besides the timeliness and greater plausibility a medication-caused arrest brings to this pivotal scene, it also makes Jessie a victim of her circumstances in the truest sense of the word and reinforces what a weak man Gerald really is at heart (no pun intended). Speaking of the titular character, those expecting a balding, pot-bellied Gerald may be surprised when Bruce Greenwood shows up in full-on DILF mode here, complete with sexy black boxer briefs. Objectification aside, Greenwood lends excellent support as the husband—menacing when alive, taunting when dead. He plays the character skillfully right up to the edge of that line separating sanity from insanity, sliding effortlessly between a desperate, arrogant man-child in the grips of a mid-life crisis and full-blown misogynistic psychopath with a decidedly dark side.

But make no mistake: The film belongs to Carla Gugino. She embodies just the right amount of vulnerability and strength to make Jessie authentic, her actions credible. Her powerhouse performance is compelling; it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the range of emotions she displays as the direness of her predicament becomes clear and she struggles between survival and surrender while skirting precariously close to the cliff of madness as the hours tick by.

Flanagan has outwitted the static premise of the source material with aplomb by seamlessly weaving together Jessie’s bedroom predicament with the more sensitive repressed childhood assault narrative. He ably compensates for what appears on the surface to be restrained physical motion with a narrative fluidity—a stellar achievement in pacing that should be applauded.  Even during extended monologues with and between the projections of Jessie’s overtaxed—nearly fractured—mind, Flanagan manages to ratchet up the tension, using them as vehicles to peel back layers of her past and her psyche. Flanagan uses well-paced, back-and-forth snippets of dialogue between the two manifestations of Jessie’s mind—with Greenwood representing the crippling self-doubt that has trapped her since her tragic loss of childhood innocence set against the backdrop of a solar eclipse years before and Gugino pulling double-duty as a stronger, more resilient version of herself that she’s clearly had to rely on to get her out of unsafe situations before—to personify her at-odds thought process. It’s an effective device that works admirably and without detracting from the physical horrors at hand.

Flanagan also demonstrates a clear affection and respect for his genre audience as evidenced by several well-placed Easter eggs sprinkled throughout GERALD’S GAME, lending to an “in-crowd” kind of feeling for those eagle-eyed fans while not excluding those who may not pick up on the myriad winks to other King works woven throughout the film or those who might miss the design similarity between the mirror in OCULUS and the Burlingame’s headboard or nightstand copy of the Maddie Young-penned MIDNIGHT MASS, a nod to his HUSH heroine.

In a year that brought both a disappointingly lackluster King adaptation (THE DARK TOWER) and a runaway success (IT), GERALD’S GAME skews heavily toward the latter. Unlike the recent IT adaptation, in which elements of the epic had to be scaled down to the intimate, GERALD’S GAME needed to expand upon the intimate, opening scenes up to breathe—without losing the suffocating tension. It was a loftily ambitious high wire act to pull off, but Flanagan does it. He even scores points for his brave choice to remain faithful to King’s lopsided, narratively disjointed ending. Much of the criticism leveled at King’s novel-length works over the decades have zeroed in on their weak endings, so surely Flanagan would have been forgiven—maybe even lauded—for changing it up a bit here. But he proves himself a loyalist and manages to do as respectable a job with the intact ending as any director likely could. He explained the reasoning behind his choice in a recent interview with the website Bloody Disgusting:

“It was something when I read the book that I loved. I know it was polarizing with fans of the book, so the people that hated that epilogue in the book are going to hate it in the movie. I fully expect that [the epilogue is] going to be the lightning rod for people to be like ‘Oh I was so into it and then (groans) that ending.’ But that’s what happened in the book. There was never a time where it felt right to do the film without that ending, for better or worse.”

Owing more to King’s earlier—and equally claustrophobic—CUJO (complete with a female protagonist trapped in an isolated, confined space and racing against time, dehydration, and flesh-munching dog), Flanagan’s cinematic take on GERALD’S GAME streamlines the source material without cutting too close to the story’s bones. It’s a gripping psychological thrill ride anchored by Gugino’s riveting performance, strong support from Greenwood and E.T.’s Henry Thomas (as Jessie’s father), and enhanced by cinematographer Michael Fimognari’s exquisite interior shots that are alternatingly languid and frenetic and in perfect sync with Flanagan's pitch-perfect narrative pacing.