The Moonlight Man
There’s a lot to like in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Gerald’s Game, a book long thought to be unfilmable since so much of it consists of internal dialog, with the main character handcuffed to a bed for much of it.
This feature-length movie, the latest in a long line of Stephen King adaptations showing up this year, launched on Netflix on September 29 and is already garnering mostly laudatory reviews. The setup is well known to King fans. Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) are at a remote lakeside cabin for the weekend, attempting to rekindle their fraught relationship with some kinky sex. Gerald has brought handcuffs, but not the frilly kind that might break if things get rough: these are the real deal.
It’s been months since they’ve been intimate. Gerald has been experiencing performance issues of late, and he can only engage when he’s dominating. The sex games quickly go south, though, because Jessie is afraid of her husband’s dark side. When she demands that they stop the foolishness, Gerald gets angry and she’s in no position to put up a fight. Then Gerald suffers a massive heart attack (Greenwood sells this incident—tendons and veins extend; it looks like the real deal) and topples off the bed.
Isn’t that a hell of a thing? No one knows where they are, the custodians probably won’t be back to the cabin for days, and anything of possible use is conveniently just out of reach: the phone in one direction, the handcuff and car keys in another. Jessie is trapped with her arms spread wide, and there’s nothing she can do to extricate herself from the situation.
Could things get any worse? Naturally—this is a Stephen King story. The stray dog Jessie so kindly treated to an expensive piece of steak a few hours ago is attracted by the scent of blood and fresh meat, and it proceeds to chow down on dearly departed Gerald. (This has to be the luckiest dog in movie history—all he has to do beyond a few barks and growls is eat and eat and eat some more!) And then, of course, there’s the Moonlight Man who appears to her at night. Is he real or is he Death?
Jessie retreats inside her head. In the novel, a chorus of voices chimes in, each with a distinct personality and viewpoint, but in the film Flanagan reduces this to two: her dead husband and a serious, stern version of Jessie who I thought of as Miss Practical-Sensible (as in Rose Madder), the voice of reason, forcing Jessie to use her wits to survive. Gerald isn’t quite Gerald, though—he’s her husband as she sees him, and he makes all manner of self-deprecating comments about his past behavior that show how badly their 11-year marriage was broken and how little Jessie thought of him—and how little she thinks he thought of her.
They wander around the room talking to her, and sometimes to each other. They aren’t exactly Id and Ego or Yin and Yang, not even the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, but kind of an amalgam of all of that. Let’s call them her insecurities and her strengths. I was reminded a bit of Orphan Black with all of its clones, although no such camera wizardry is required here. Still, it is a tour-de-force performance by Gugino, because often she is playing off herself. She displays just about every emotion possible as she struggles to survive. High marks, too, to Greenwood, who is both menacing and charming. Toward the end he has a three- or four-minute soliloquy filmed in a single take that really impressed me.
The situation causes Jessie to revisit a painful incident from her childhood, one that has affected just about everything that came thereafter. Her creepy father (Henry Thomas) did something terrible to her during an eclipse when she was twelve, and something even worse a few hours later. This is all painful to watch, and Flanagan’s camera-eye doesn’t flinch away from or soften any of it.
Her memories force Jessie to confront this secret she’s never told anyone, but there’s another purpose to revisiting the past. Something from that day will prove useful to her in her present situation. The ensuing scene is truly harrowing and extremely hard to watch, although if you’ve read the book you know what’s coming. That doesn’t make it any easier, but at least you’ll be a little prepared.
Then there’s the matter of the Moonlight Man, aka the Space Cowboy. Is he real? Whether he is or not, it was a piece of brilliant casting to have Carel Struycken, the giant from Twin Peaks, play the part. It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it.
Flanagan has become an expert in storytelling with a camera. Anyone who has seen his previous movies knows to trust him as he moves it around. If you pay attention to everything he shows you, you’ll never feel lost. Jessie looks back at the open door when Gerald calls her into the bedroom; how different would things have been if she had paused long enough to close it? A lingering shot on a Viagra pill bottle is important because that pill represents something and the medication itself leads to something else that is crucial to Jessie’s survival. There are countless instances of that in this film. Everything is there, laid out for you, a step at a time. He also has a shorthand that establishes character effectively. The different ways Jessie and Gerald react to the stray dog says a lot about them, for example. The awkwardness Jessie displays when she’s preparing herself for Gerald’s entrance into the bedroom says everything about the state of their relationship.
And he pulls off some technically difficult scenarios. Most notable is the scene where Jessie figures out how to get the precious water she needs to survive (although I wasn’t 100% sold on the way she made that straw). The sound design is highly effective: the ambient sounds outside the cabin window that start out benign but take on a sinister timbre when the sun goes down. The dog’s toenails on the hardwood floor and the visceral sounds as he takes another bite out of the cadaver. There aren’t many jump-scares, but it is a harrowing and involving film all the same.
Is it perfect? No—it went off the rails at the end for me, in part because Flanagan is so devoted to the source material that he adheres to it completely, to the movie’s detriment. The over-long denouement feels at odds with the tone of the previous 90 minutes. Sure, that’s the way it happened in the book, but I didn’t feel it played out well on the screen. I felt myself pulling back after being so powerfully immersed in the story.
The film does have messages. The fact that Jessie is able to solve her problem without the assistance of anyone else is empowering. The handcuffs are both literal and metaphorical. There’s also the realization that the people who were supposed to protect her from monsters turned out to be monsters themselves. Messages aside, though, it is an effective, creepy and claustrophobic movie that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
That degloving scene – oh boy!
For people caught up in the Stephen King Universe concept, watch out for allusions to Cujo, The Dark Tower, Dolores Claiborne, and Bag of Bones.