The Gerald’s Game Courtroom Scene Undid One of the Best Stephen King Movies

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This article contains Gerald’s Game spoilers.

The grace and intelligence with which Mike Flanagan approached Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game novel never gets enough credit. Released to streaming in 2017, the psychological thriller with a hint of the supernatural suffered the same fate as many of the best movies released on Netflix; it blipped into the pop culture aether and then vanished from it, buried by a lack of attention. (The fact it came out the same month as WB’s splashy big budget It: Chapter One didn’t help.)

Yet the raw emotional power of the film has lingered for those who continue to discover it on the big N, as has its legacy for Flanagan, whose clarity of storytelling and vision in Gerald’s Game paved the way for a series of fascinating Netflix shows, including The Haunting of Hill House, and the chance to pull off another miracle by making a surprisingly satisfying sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining via another flawed King text, Doctor Sleep.

Still, Gerald’s Game remains one of the writer-director’s best literary adaptations, as well as his most concise. Alongside co-writer Jeff Howard, Flanagan synthesizes one of the author’s most lurid and discombobulated tales about a nude woman arguing with the voices in her head into a far more effective cinematic story of survival, trauma, and midlife epiphanies.

As that woman, Carla Gugino is spellbindingly terrific, doing some of the best work of her career. She inhabits the fear and gumption of Jessie, a person who must recognize she will die handcuffed to a bed unless she undoes the physical shackles placed on her by a husband (Bruce Greenwood) who then had a fatal heart attack, as well as the lifelong mental shackles placed on her by all the men in her life: her newly late husband Gerald, her sinister and predatory father Tom (Henry Thomas)… and even the Moonlight Man.

Indeed, perhaps the most visceral image in the film outside of the blood splatter of Jessie’s escape from the handcuffs, is of the enormous shadow cast by seven-foot-tall actor Carel Struycken. Appearing midway through the film as a seeming hallucination (at least at first), Struycken’s nameless visitor enters the remote lake house where Jessie and Gerald attempted to get away for the weekend, appearing like a wraith as unknowable as Death himself. He also comes bearing a box in which he collects the jewels, bones, and other paraphernalia of the recently deceased. It’s a treasure chest that he implicitly wishes Jessie to donate to.

A dark and enigmatic figure whom Jessie nicknames “the Moonlight Man,” because he only appears when the full moon is at its brightest during the witching hour, this leering countenance immerses Gerald’s Game in a supernatural fog. There’s a reason that even six years after the film’s release, he is still appearing on social media as a kind of meme’d celebrity.

If only his seeming original symbolism in the film stayed within the nether region from whence he came: that uncanny valley between sleeping and waking, nightmares and reality, death and life. Yet it’s not meant to be.

In what might be the best example of King’s need to over-explain and rationalize so many of his ambiguities, Gerald’s Game on page and screen ends not with Jessie’s escape from her literal and metaphysical trap—or her succumbing to them. We definitely see her commit gruesome, yet liberating, damage to herself as she rips the skin from her hand to escape one of the handcuffs and then unlock the other; we also see her come face to face with the visage of her potential death as on the hour of her liberation, the Moonlight Man returns and demands a toll if she is to exit the house. So she bequeaths him the wedding ring she no longer needs; we even see how despite this offering the shadow of Death lingers over her still with the Moonlight Man appearing in her mind’s eye and bathed in crimson as she continues losing an extraordinary amount of blood in her car.

She survives all her traumas, thankfully, yet the film is unable to resist King’s gilding of the lily. Hence the film concludes not only with a denouement, but a long-winded voiceover in which Jessie, while writing a letter to her imaginary younger self, tidies everything up with a neat bow, including the Moonlight Man. As it turns out, he was neither a hallucination nor a manifestation of Death; he was a necrophiliac-turned-serial-killer who just happened to suffer from a condition that caused him to grow into a seeming giant.

As it turns out, he has spent years breaking into people’s houses to commit murder and then necrophilia with men’s bodies (she is thus fortunate that he had Gerald to occupy his attention). Finally, Jessie’s voiceover reveals she’s even decided to confront the Moonlight Man at his arraignment in a courthouse. In a floridly written scene, Jessie sees every man who has tried to control her in his face: her father, her husband, and sure, Death too. She then smiles, “You’re so much smaller than I remember.” (It’s still better than what King wrote, which involves Jessie spitting in face.)

As a metaphor for defeating trauma, this has a certain cathartic appeal. It visualizes the the main themes of the movie, making the subtext text, and gives audiences a literalization of Jessie’s triumph over her abusers, from the truly wicked father to the unconsciously selfish Gerald. Nonetheless, it’s a step too far that dilutes what is otherwise the best Stephen King movie of the last decade.

When the Moonlight Man first appears an hour earlier in the picture, seemingly materializing out of thin air in Jessie’s bedroom/prison, the film makes much the same point by eerily and more gracefully dipping a toe into the metaphysical. One of the film’s great improvements on the book, for instance, is having the most antagonistic voice in Jessie’s head being Gerald himself; it gives an underrated character actor like Greenwood a lot to play with, and also teases the menace of their marriage as he warns his wife:

“You are safe from ghouls and ghosts and the living dead in the daylight, and you’re usually safe from them at night if you’re with others. But a person alone in the dark—women alone in the dark—are like open doors. If they scream for help, who knows what might answer? Who knows what people see at the moment of their solitary death? Is it so hard to believe some of them died of fear? No matter what the words on the death certificate say. Died of fear because they saw at their bedside the Moonlight Man.”

It’s a chilling monologue, both due to the fact that Jessie’s imagined vision of her husband leads into cruel and antiquated sexist notions (thereby commenting on the unspoken tension of their marriage), and because it casts the Moonlight Man in just enough lunar illumination to make the film’s point. Whether real or imagined, he represents yet another possessive male figure who would seek to entrap a woman who’s always been afraid to be alone into his possession—and all due to the first evil destruction of her innocence and happiness by a father who molested her during a solar eclipse… during the absence of light.

However, just as King’s habitual need to namecheck the pop culture of his youth can dilute his atmosphere (in the book the Moonlight Man is called the “Space Cowboy,” a la the Steve Miller Band song), his need to excessively rationalize the seemingly unexplainable at the end leads to a ham-fisted conclusion that relies on an absurd amount of coincidence. Consider the odds that Jessie is handcuffed to a bed by a husband who dies mid-sex game on the same day a feral dog and a serial killer happen to be individually sniffing around their lonely lake house.
Yet while the ending is a misstep, it hardly trips what is a remarkable horror film that relies on neither jump scares or exaggerated special effects. Gerald’s Game is a film that finds the greatest horror lives in the mind—from the very real demons we can all keep there, even as we pretend they don’t exist. Seeing them finally manifest in a shimmer of moonlight really is the stuff of shivers.

The post The Gerald’s Game Courtroom Scene Undid One of the Best Stephen King Movies appeared first on Den of Geek.

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