One of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen on television comes early in The Langoliers, a 1995 ABC miniseries adapted by Tom Holland from a Stephen King novella. It’s the one about a small group of travelers waking up on a red-eye flight to discover that most of the other passengers and flight crew have disappeared, and that the world below them seems to have gone dark. Everyone is curiously low-key, discussing this quietly in their seats, less freaked out about this existential mystery than I get if there’s a chance I’ll miss a connecting flight. Through all of this, Dean Stockwell, playing a novelist, that most familiar of King heroes, makes his way around the cabin in his sport coat, gently interrogating his fellow passengers about their circumstances. A young man blinks at him a little confused.
“I’m a mystery writer,” Stockwell’s character declares. “Deduction is my bread and butter.”
Imagine you had never heard of The Langoliers or this scene. And imagine that you get tasked, for some reason, with taking a year or so of your life to come up with a million things that actual humans might actually say in the situation of waking up to find a once-packed jet almost entirely empty. I submit that if you did this for five years or five decades you still would never come close to jotting down the declaration, “I’m a mystery writer. Deduction is my bread and butter.”
Outside of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, television has tended to reduce Stephen King to corn. What looked so promising about Netflix’s new adaptation of Gerald’s Game, starring Carla Gugino as a woman handcuffed to the bed after her husband dies during some strained BDSM, is that, like Salem’s Lot, this is a movie coming from an accomplished horror director, a visual storyteller who might prove adept at handling the kinky escape-room practicalities of the scenario. Surely Mike Flanagan (Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Before I Wake) could fight off the bread-and-butter-isms.
The verdict: Kind of. Pretty often. But not entirely. The crisply cruel opening finds Gugino’s Jessie and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) rousing themselves for a save-the-marriage weekend in a cabin in the woods. In just 9 minutes, Flanagan gets his star cuffed to the bedposts. But en route he establishes, with offhand dexterity, everything we need to know about the couple, about the room’s layout, about that scruffed-up stray dog scavenging roadkill near the cabin. Just a few minutes later, after the sex play turns convincingly sour, Jessie’s panting beneath her husband’s corpse, stunned and panicking and entirely stuck. The nearest cellphone is too far away to reach. The keys to the cuffs are in the bathroom. And it’s early enough in the summer season that there’s nobody staying in the only house within the range of her screams.
Right about here, when it seems we’re going to get a grueling solo show of resolve and problem solving, a lurid exhibition of lingerie and empowerment, Gerald’s Game starts in with its bread-and-buttering. Before we’ve even seen Jessie feel through the basics of her predicament, Gerald is right back standing, a projection in her mind speaking with calm viciousness about their past. He reminds her of a joke she once overheard him tell, one whose punchline is that a woman’s only purpose is to serve as a “life-support system for a cunt.” Soon, Jessie is watching her vision of Gerald get upbraided by a vision of herself, unbound but wearing the same Cat on a Hot Tin Roof slip, snarling at him, “Men aren’t so much as blessed with penises as cursed by them.”
This dialogue is to 2017’s prestige streaming what “Deduction is my bread and butter” was to 1995 network miniseries — the generic nadir. These colloquies and, later, extended monologues kill the suspense for long stretches of the film. We watch Jessie, strapped to the bed, forced to watch them, all their half-assed drama full of portentous generalizations. It’s almost a metaphor for being sick and having Netflix. Jessie also must face flashbacks to her own childhood, to her father’s terrible arousal at her 12-year-old body, to a total eclipse of the sun seen from this same lake house. In these visions, of course, she finds the wherewithal to continue trying to escape, but the film often seems skittish about its premise, as if everyone involved fears we’ll be bored if we actually have to watch Gugino struggle in that bed for more than seconds at a time.
But in bursts, between the memories and the ghostly Who’s Afraid of Stephen King? playlets, Flanagan shows that he probably could have made a leaner, meaner, more suspenseful film. Gerald’s Game tautens up in the occasional sequences where Jessie works step by step through incidental difficulties: chasing away that dog, getting a drink of water. With rasps and desperate eyes, Gugino communicates Jessie’s thinking and planning so powerfully that cutaways to that other Jessie, the chatty vision, egging her on, prove redundant. The finale is especially effective, grisly enough that I looked away but thrilling enough that I looked back. The climactic scenes have little of the earlier hokey, time-killing verbosity; a movie shot mostly in that mode would be one of the best of its genre in any year.
Gerald’s Game premieres on Netflix on September 29.