Slipping onto Netflix on Friday, Gerald’s Game is one of the most interesting and well-acted movies you’ll see this year. Based on the Stephen King novel, it stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood as a married couple whose kinky tryst yields some unhappy surprises. Jessie and Gerald are planning to spend a weekend trip in a country cottage as an opportunity to spice up their sex life with a little light bondage: handcuffs attached to wrists and bed posts, Viagra and champagne, that sort of thing. But then — this is no spoiler; it happens within the opening moments and you probably remember the plot of King’s bestseller anyway — Gerald keels over dead, before he has a chance to unlock Jessie’s cuffs. The remainder of the film is taken up by Jessie’s efforts to get free, and if that sounds limited or claustrophobic, you’re forgetting King’s inventiveness. Jessie is menaced both from the outside (a large, very hungry stray dog gets into the house and finds Gerald’s corpse and Jessie’s live, bed-bound body) and from within (Jessie relives memories of sexual abuse inflicted upon her by her father, played by Henry Thomas).
Directed by Mike Flanagan with a screenplay adaptation by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, Gerald’s Game operates on a number of levels. It’s suspenseful and sometimes scary in the Stephen King manner. Working from a premise that could have become embarrassing or silly — wife handcuffed to a bed is the premise for many cartoons in hundreds of old issues of Playboy magazine — King and his adapters render this material sharp-witted, even moving: These two people really are trying to save their marriage. Once Gerald’s death and Jessie’s entrapment kicks in, the threats to Jessie’s body and mind become vividly realistic.
Greenwood is very good at inhabiting Gerald’s wounded vanity, his mixture of love, lust, and loneliness within this sputtering union. Gugino is superb. She plays Jessie as both vulnerable and resourceful without making either seem a defining characteristic. She shows us Jessie’s handcuffed panic, and how her mind works looking around the room, figuring out possible ways to free herself from her decidedly un-erotic bondage. Gugino is an experienced stage actor, and her skills come in handy in this piece, which is largely set in one room.
At the same time, the filmmakers don’t reduce the proceedings to the confines of what could have looked like a one-act play. Instead, director Flanagan makes the most of the spooky (Maine?) woods, and the flashbacks to Jessie’s shattered childhood, in dusky colors that play off the shadows of a solar eclipse. These scenes have a warm glow that only makes the predatory sex all the more surprising and awful.
What a welcome addition Gerald’s Game is to Netflix’s menu. Clocking in at a tidy hour-and-a-half, it’s not one of the streaming service’s 12-part endurance “binges.” This is, in some ways, a call-back to a vanishing sub-genre — the network TV-movie. And Gerald’s Game, while making sure to give you some scares, also knows that Stephen King’s frights aren’t, at their best, the kind that yelp, Boo! They’re the ones that twist our best feelings and impulses into our worst ones.
Gerald’s Game begins streaming Friday on Netflix.