The Striking Feminism of Gerald’s Game
Director: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood
Streaming on Netflix
I was sixteen when I read my mom’s paperback copy of Gerald’s Game by Stephen King. She was hesitant to lend it to me, in large part because of the sex, evidenced on the front cover by a pair of handcuffs tethered to a bedpost. I wore her down, all the more curious what Gerald’s Game had in store.
Since picking up Carrie several years earlier, I had immersed myself in King’s books, and was instantly delighted to find another novel with a female protagonist. I also read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier around this time, which alongside the work of King, Shirley Jackson, and the Bronte sisters, informed the writer I am today.
The most vivid memory I have of that paperback with the handcuffs on the cover, is not of the creepy Moonlight Man, or even of Jessi’s brutal escape from the cuffs. It is the heartbreaking shock of Jessi’s father’s betrayal. This scene, which takes place during the same eclipse referenced in another of his feminist works, Dolores Claiborne, is one of King’s most well-written and visceral depictions. It was my great pleasure that this account of sexual assault was not glossed over in the film, instead treated with the same depth and importance as it was in the 1992 novel.
But Gerald’s Game is not just the story of a girl abused. In the capable hands of writer/director Mike Flanagan (check out his phenomenal female driven horror movie Hush on Netflix) it becomes a feminist horror masterpiece. About half way through the movie I was unable to remain on the couch, compelled to hover near the TV, in order to fully take in the sort of horror that I am starving for. It’s been awhile since I was so transfixed, so buoyed by seeing a film that speaks to what I am attempting to achieve in my own work.
Jessi, played by the mesmerizing Carla Gugino, is complicated. She has allowed herself to be controlled by her husband, a piggish man, just as she was controlled by her father. It is not until she faces her own complications that she is able to persevere. Her physical anguish is punctuated by her mental pain, and it is clear that she has been handcuffed to a metaphorical bedpost for her entire life.
As I write about Jessi and Gerald, I would be remiss not to see this film’s timing as quite apropos. In the landscape of women declaring “Me, too”, Jessi is a flawed, but ultimately daring hero. During the worst trial of her life, she comes to terms with her disturbing interactions with men, a sort of waking up that is currently occurring all over the world. For it is not the dog munching on Gerald’s face, or even the handcuffs themselves that are the villains of this story. It is the men in Jessi’s life, her pathetic, insidiously venomous father (played with surprising depth by Henry Thomas, yes the little kid from ET!) and it is Gerald (Bruce Greenwood). Gerald is the man who on the surface seems loving, a decent, successful husband who just wants a roll in the proverbial hay. But soon we see his flash of anger at Jessi’s unwillingness to play along with his rape fantasy, and as the movie unfolds we are confronted with the dark soul obscured by his handsome face and soothing talk. He is a Harvey Weinstein, a man addicted to control, who was drawn to a woman like Jessi because she was vulnerable prey.
This film artfully weaves Jessi’s story, her past and her present, to a crescendo of horror and realization. I actually jumped! It’s not only psychological but provides decent scares.
Gerald’s Game, just like this year’s exploration of race, Get Out, is the sort of horror we all need to be excited about. It presents a story of a woman trapped, which taken at face value is scary enough, yet it is the inner workings of her mind, the hushed culture of sexual assault, and the still uneven dynamic of men and women, that is the true horror.