Gerald’s Game (****): We deserve the sunlight

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Gerald’s Game – 2017

Director Mike Flanagan
Screenplay by Jeff Howard and Flanagan based on the book by Stephen King
Starring Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Chiara Aurelia, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken, Kate Siegel

Everything’s coming up Stephen King these days. The sheer volume of material he’s put out over the years make it surprising that we don’t see even more. The added benefit of his prodigious output is that we now have an entire universe of references from which to pull. The effect for Gerald’s Game is somewhat a boon, given the claustrophobic nature of the story.

The story is a simple one. Husband and wife Gerald and Jessie Burlingame (Greenwood and Gugino) head to a secluded cabin in Maine to spice things up in their marriage. For him, it requires objectification and role play. Jessie had something different in mind, like, say, talking. He no sooner gets the cuffs on her when she realizes their dichotomy and begs him to release her. He gets upset and an argument ensues, all while she’s still in the cuffs. During this argument, he falls dead on top of her.

The first hours are a mixture of disbelief and desperate begging for what she knows to be real to just…not be. Then we start to see the effects of her breaking down. Or maybe not.

The imaginings and reality of what she sees varies from scene to scene. Among the things that seem real, a starving dog that she’d earlier took pity on by feeding Kobe beef. For the most part, we come to accept the visions as aspects of her own breaking psyche. They are either trying to help, hurt or possibly eat away at her.

Eventually, we come to a deeper understanding of who Jessie is, why she is currently in chains and we start to understand what it might take for her to escape her bonds. If you think there is a metaphor in there, you may have seen this before.

Even if you have, Flanagan has such a gentle touch that it works. Those who have gone through similar experiences might be moved in Gugino’s performance, as well as Aurelia playing a younger Jessie. There is something in King’s study of character that works in marrying the adult to the child in experience.

There are many references to other works here, including Dolores Claiborne, The Dark Tower and Bag of Bones. I have read perhaps 5 King books in my life, so I am not an expert by any means, but I can say the references I understood made the experience a deeper one for me. Dolores Claiborne, in particular, resonates. The solar eclipse of 1963 in this story also occurs in that book. The stories are indeed bookends of the experiences of abuse detailed within.

The astounding thing is how much Flanagan gets out of the King material, considered one of his minor works by many critics of literature. To me, the scenes between Jessie and her abuser are deceptively well written and it shows how one can start digging a hole from which they reside for most of their life.

That’s where the eclipse and references to the sun come in. Such a simple metaphor shouldn’t work so well, but it does here, even better, perhaps, than it did in the movie version of Dolores Claiborne, which is itself an excellent film.

Flanagan has a vision that many of us may not see at first. He carried the hardcover version of this book around with him for years while pitching films. Most didn’t see a movie in it. He saw more than a movie. He saw something about how some of us spend our lives in the shadow of the sun. It’s an essential vision of the mask we sometimes put on our past.

There is more to the story, but it almost seems superfluous compared to the acting journey we’re taken on by the excellent Gugino and Greenwood. There is some blood and gore, but it’s handled in a manner that makes it shocking because it’s not gratuitous. If you have never questioned your past, this is a worthy film to watch.

(**** out of *****)

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Oculus: If there is more than one, then it would be Oculi

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Oculus – 2014

Director Mike Flanagan
Starring Karen Gillan, Brendan Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackoff
Screenplay Flanagan and Jeff Howard

Oculus is a good little story whose conceit is that it can change the perspective of anyone onscreen to match whatever it needs for the moment. Shame of it is, its characters start out with the semblance of hope into what we all know is a hopeless situation.  Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard estimate that the audience will not notice the manipulation into what is essentially a warm up for Oculus 2, or Oculi, as I would like to refer to it.

Kaylie Russell (Gillan) is a woman on a mission.  Eleven years earlier, She and her brother Tim (Thwaites) barely survived an attack by a spirit in a haunted mirror, which claimed the lives of their father and mother. How they did this is the most interesting part of the film, but Flanagan decides to get to that later…sort of.  Now an adult, Russell has researched the history of this mirror, and placed herself in the position to get the mirror for a weekend.  Her brother, meanwhile has been discharged from a mental institution, where he has learned to take responsibility for what happened to her parents and to deny the existence of the supernatural.

We wouldn’t have a movie if Tim resisted Kaylie’s invitation to have a final confrontation with the mirror in trying to break its curse. Having arranged to have the mirror delivered to their old home, and jury rigged the home with a bunch of fail safe measures designed to discover what really happened and break the power of the mirror, Kaylie thinks she’s got everything in hand. Tim, meanwhile, provides the counterpoint, needing to be convinced, while backing her up. What could go wrong?

The scenes from our protagonists jump back and forth between what happened to them as children and what is happening to them now. As the movie wears on, it becomes apparent that the kid version of the equation fared better than the older and presumably wiser adult version. Part of the reason for this is the mirror knows the characters as well as they think they know it. The vantage of the viewer to both timelines begins to adjust to the manipulation that the mirror provides.  Most audiences will catch onto this fairly quickly, though.  This results in the film losing steam quite quickly towards the end, as we wait out the inevitable push to a sequel.

The acting in this film is a cut above what one would expect for its kind. Gillan, a veteran of Dr. Who, provides energy to override her folly. Cochrane and Sackhoff have a manic energy between them that gives the film some stirring imagery. It would seem Sackhoff is destined to spend the rest of her career playing in horror while waiting for another BSG special. At least she gives each performance everything she’s got, whether it’s this film or that Haunting of Connecticut movie that takes place in Georgia.

The best aspect of Oculus is watching the history of the mirror.  Seeing seemingly random spooks is one thing, but finding out that they used to be unsuspecting folks through Kaylie’s narration and pictures adds a level of spook that brings one back to Ghost Story, or more recently, Sinister. It’s this element that makes the film feel scary, more than any amount of improbable manipulation.

(***1/2 out of *****)