Since the 1970s, horror films have adopted the traits of social thrillers. Such genre movies tell stories about societal oppression as well as everyday injustices, with their horrifying narratives serving as an excellent base for terrifying social commentary. Gerald's Game is precisely that, a social thriller focusing on gender issues with a feminist angle.
The setting is a secluded house. In an attempt to salvage their dysfunctional marriage, Jessie (Carla Gugino) agrees to her husband Gerald's (Bruce Greenwood) request for role play and is subsequently handcuffed to the bed. Gerald is quick to turn on the aggression, scaring her. Before they end their little game, the viagra Gerald's taken gives him a heart attack and he dies. The trapped Jessie must fight to survive, with only her husband's corpse, a stray dog and her imagination to keep her company.
Adapted from a Stephen King novel, Gerald's Game was thought to be un-filmable for long as most of the story takes place in Jessie's mind and is predominantly about her own internal conflict. While film is a medium that best explores extra-personal conflict, the novel prides itself in its ability to explore inner thoughts and emotions. A writer can find his or her way into the mind of the character by simply writing what the character thinks, but the job of a filmmaker is tougher.
Director Mike Flanagan does an exceptional job of dramatising the novel. Not long after Gerald falls to the floor, his hand pops up as he gets up and blames Jessie for the dilemma. But he's simply a figment of her imagination. Sometime later, Jessie frees herself and celebrates, but this second Jessie is also a figment of her own imagination. For the rest of the film, she engages in twisted arguments with these visual manifestations of her own subconscious. The bursts of Jessie's emotion and the memories of her true shackles of patriarchy and exploitation keep are captivating as viewers watch her struggle to free herself from this life-threatening situation. Here is some solid symbolism employed by the creators as tools of effective expression:
When Gerald falls dead on Jessie, she uses her legs to push him off. The weight she pushes off is not only the 80 odd kgs but the weight of her marriage and the other intimate male relationships she's had, such as the one with her father. It's an important step she takes at the beginning of the film, by the end of which she overcomes the chains that have held her back her whole life. The irony here is that Jessie blamed her too-short dress and revealing legs for being sexually assaulted as a child. When she finally finds a way to break out of the shackles, Gerald says, "Your legs have been unused for two days, they won't be able to carry your weight" to which she replies, "If I do this, my legs better do their bit." The metaphor is a very powerful one, with Jessie's legs having to now carry the weight of her liberated self.
A stray dog is Jessie's only constant companion through her struggle. But it isn't exactly a friend. I see the dog as a metaphor for the patriarchy. An animal, a beast that feeds on whatever it may find. Supposedly 'man's best friend', the dog is a constant threat to Jessie. As Gerald's body rots, the dog is expected to move toward her for fresher meat. It's interesting to note that the social institution of patriarchy affects us all. Although women are the primary victims, men too suffer the burden of accepting and abiding by gender roles. Such expectations are what forced Gerald to take a viagra in the first place.
The moonlight man is a symbol of what Jessie fears the most. And, at times, that is nothing but the fear of facing her fears and confronting everyone who has oppressed her. "You are not real," she tells him as she gives him her wedding ring (signifying the end of the chains of her marriage) and leaves the house. Later, he comes back to haunt her and interestingly, his eyes shine red, like the colour of the eclipse. At the end of the film, when Jessie confronts the serial killer, she looks him in the eye and says to him, "You're so much smaller than I remember." Having finally overcome her fears, she walks down the road, ending the long eclipse of oppression she had been running from.
When Jessie is young and watching an eclipse, her dad asks her to sit on his lap because that arouses him. He proceeds to touch himself, fully aware that Jessie knows what he's doing. He doesn't stop there, he emotionally manipulates her to keep the assault a secret. This moment scars Jessie forever. The moment that the sun is eclipsed by the moon is the moment that changes her forever. She finally breaks free of her shackles in that house.
The handcuffs are the most obvious metaphor in the film. Literally, they act as shackles binding her to the bed and endangering her life. Figuratively, the handcuffs were not just a part of Gerald's game, she had been wearing them since she was 12, the day her father manipulated her. We see the younger Jessie wearing the shackles as the older Jessie apologises to her. Finally, after all these years, Jessie finds a way to break out. The visual of her cutting her hand and peeling her skin off as she uses her blood as a lubricant is extremely disturbing. Figuratively, her journey to break out of the handcuffs her father had put her in is emotionally just as painful.