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Processing Trauma in ‘Gerald’s Game’

by Chelsea Phillips-Carr

In order to spice up their sex life, Jessie (Carla Gugino) agrees to be handcuffed to a bed by her husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), during a weekend getaway in a secluded cabin. But when Gerald begins enacting a rape fantasy, Jessie resists. Before he can un-cuff her, he has a heart attack and dies, and Jessie, shackled to the bed, spends the rest of Gerald’s Game figuring out her escape as she begins to hallucinate under stress and dehydration. A tense thriller based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, director Mike Flanagan’s latest film is as much about the process of trauma as it is about escape, as survival for Jessie concerns working through crises as well as freeing herself from Gerald’s handcuffs. But the film’s now notorious ending is at odds with what it takes such pains to construct in terms of its discussion of gendered violence.

Trapped on the bed, Jessie is visited by visions. The first is Gerald himself, who mocks her and exhibits pride and condescension. He looks down on Jessie for “allowing” him to mistreat her, having stayed silent during moments of disrespect (such as when he objectifies or dehumanizes women) as well as out of politeness (like when she finds his Viagra prescription). Aiming to please at any cost, Jessie cannot stand up for herself, accepting her husband’s abuse while blaming only herself for it. Gerald is soon joined by a hallucinatory — and unshackled — version of Jessie, one who is able to articulate problems. Confronted with real-Jessie’s self-effacement and Gerald’s berating, hallucination-Jessie is calm, self-confident, and strong. When Jessie’s childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her father (something equally silenced and hidden with shame) is brought into the mix of her visions, it is her dream-version that helps her to forgive herself and come to terms with the trauma as a significant event in her life — but one that is not her fault. Though representing the perspective of different characters, the story maintains their place within Jessie’s mind, separate from their reality — though she uses other people to form a dialogue, the discussion is her own. From this, Jessie begins to be able to heal in a singularly personal manner.

Though the representation of sexual violence, emotional abuse, and sexist power struggles in interpersonal relationships is shallow in Gerald’s Game, its perspective is somewhat refreshing. Jessie, the survivor, is never blamed, nor is she eroticized or objectified; there is no pleasure to be had in the processing of her trauma, and she is given respect, sensitivity, and space. A bare minimum of respect that reaches towards complexity is perhaps not quite enough, but it is a positive anomaly amidst the usual hateful and stigmatizing cinematic depictions of sexual violence nonetheless. But for many reasons, the film’s epilogue is a misstep.

While trapped in the cabin, Jessie is visited by a man (Carel Struycken) who she believes to be another hallucination. In the film’s conclusion, we find out that he is a serial murderer and necrophiliac named Raymond Andrew Joubert. Jessie shows up to his trial, where he repeats the words she spoke to him while delirious in he cabin, proving that he was there with her.

This final sequence, where — along with Joubert’s story — Jessie details her recovery and the aftermath of her ordeal in voice-over (the narration of a letter she is writing to her twelve-year-old self), is not good. Neatly wrapping things up, it feels like a dumbing down of the narrative for a comfortable end, a diminishing of the already fairly surface explorations of trauma presented earlier. While Gerald’s Game has its merits, especially in the agency it gives to Jessie, it is never a terribly complex film, and as such never needed to be ended with such explicit simplicity. The epilogue is also a detour from the film’s otherwise very effective mode of focus on Jessie’s perspective. With Flanagan adeptly bringing us into Jessie’s headspace for the majority of the film, we never needed an extra moment of first-person narration and easy finish; having captured Jessie’s point of view already, it adds nothing. Mostly, however, it undermines Jessie’s personal growth.

Gerald’s Game uses the fantastical horror of hallucinations and an exaggerated premise in order to set the stage for Jessie’s self-exploration and processing of trauma. Though tied to the reality of Jessie’s life by way of her husband’s “game,” the film is at its best when it is about Jessie’s mind, an outward representation of her inner life, as mediated by her alone. Through her hallucinations, we are able to see the facets of her trauma and the diverse ways in which her mind has processed her abuse; the film is one of introspection. So when this introspection clashes with the real-life criminal, untied to the gendered violence which Jessie has dealt with (in fact, his targets were mostly men), Gerald’s Game loses its grasp on the thing that made it unique. Externalizing Jessie’s conflict with her hallucinations, the ambiguity of the unreal man in her cabin could be another element of Jessie’s psyche; as a separate killer, he takes away space that should have been for (and would have been more interesting as) furthering Jessie’s psychological depth.

Departing from Jessie’s subjectivity, Gerald’s Game ends too easily, a contrived and reductive conclusion which departs from the perspective that made the film original, engaging, and meaningful. Though it may be faithful to Stephen King’s ending, who cares when it doesn’t make for good cinema? A pointless addition to Jessie’s internal struggle with external forces, Gerald’s Game‘s ending undercuts its original perspective, diminishing its potential for a deepened look at trauma.

1 comment

Mike Worby October 7, 2017 - 10:30 am

I agree that the ending undercuts a lot of what came before it. It’s certainly the weakest part of an otherwise excellent film.

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