Gerald's Game: Potentially Harmful to Victims of Abuse?

The following piece contains spoilers.

Gerald’s Game is first more and then less than it seems. The set-up is absurd, but captivating: A kinky game goes wrong after a husband chains his wife to the bed, then inconveniently has a heart attack and dies. What begins as an escape movie becomes the story of a woman alone with herself and on the brink of death, forced to face her past trauma. Since this film primarily focuses on issues of abuse, misogyny and the unhealthful cycles that make up both, the true testament to its quality should be how well it portrays these issues, and, unfortunately, Gerald’s Game falls just short of hitting its mark.

With our lead cuffed to the bed and her very dead husband lying on the floor, her mind fractures from the stress and she creates two avatars as she sorts through problems with throughout the film, one of her late husband and one of herself. These avatars serve as lenses into her thought process; her husband representing her negative, anxious thought patterns, and her other self representing blunt personal insights. As her mind and body begin to weary and she loses more and more control over herself, a memory is triggered of the day her father molested her, and we follow her through the events surrounding her abuse with vivid flashbacks.

These flashbacks are actually the best part of the film. The dynamic between victim and abuser is spot-on in these scenes, and the film takes care to discuss the complexities of what living with an abuser is like. Abuse is always a misuse of power, and because the abuser often has a wider perspective than the victim, it is easy for the abuser to manipulate the victim in different ways; to make them believe they played a role in their own abuse, to make them believe their abuser is a victim, too, to make them believe that their silence is the only thing keeping them safe. While our lead is reflecting on this, she becomes aware of how much her husband reminds her of her father, and this is actually where the film's message gets muddied.

The first problem is it feels as though a movie which was previously going through the nuances of abuse so thoroughly, has now taken this character’s experience and finished it off with a broad stroke. Her other self says to her, “You married into the only dynamic you’ve ever known,” and though abuse is often cyclical, I find the implication that women end up in toxic relationships because of past abuse troubling and a potentially harmful message to send.

The biggest issue with this scene, however, and the film’s ultimate downfall is how these revelations are portrayed. At the end of the day, the film is just too exposition-heavy. It feels less like we are watching this character have these epiphanies, and more like we are watching this character get told what to make of their abuse.

This is important because in order to reach a state of catharsis or for the film to pay off in the way it wants to, we, as an audience, need to feel that we, as well as the lead, have come to these conclusions on our own. If this film really wants to be a dissection of cyclical abuse and how victims overcome their trauma, this is a journey we need to take with them, and the insight gained needs to feel like it comes from a real place.

The film is so close to achieving this. We see that it is painful and difficult for her to overcome her past, but the catharsis that should follow is missing because the film doesn't believe enough in its audience to let them reach this catharsis organically. We are literally told by our lead’s other self that her husband exhibits the same manipulative traits as her father, we are literally told that her time cuffed to the bed is a symbol for her struggles with abuse when our lead says, “[my father’s] shackles were silence and [my husband’s] shackles were comfort.” And though we are with her during her struggles, the film ends up remembering that it has a plot to finish, so one of her flashbacks conveniently leads to her escape and her recovery time afterwards is glossed over so the film can have a neat ending, wherein she confronts a man (who we are told is a symbol for both her husband and father) and gets to say that “[he’s] a lot smaller than [she] remember[s],” before triumphantly walking away, as though she has finally been “cured” of her past.

I actually think the note the film ends on: That evil comes from real people and not bogeymen, that your abuser is not inhuman and therefore not insurmountable, to be poignant and empowering, but the idea that once you “get to the bottom” of your abuse you’re completely free is misleading. As a whole, Gerald’s Game is not an incompetent film. It is cohesive, well-acted and engaging, and when it deals with abuse well, it deals with it really well, but the thing that prevents this movie from being great is its lack of genuine closure.

This film is very neat and cohesive. We are left with no unanswered questions about our protagonist or her life, but with subject matter as complex as abuse, we probably should be. If the same amount of care had been taken to portray how she comes to terms with her abuse as had been taken to portray the actual experience, this would be a different review, but the film, at the end of the day is more concerned with wrapping up a succinct story than capturing the full breadth of its subject matter, and that’s okay, depending on how you want to take it.

If we judge this in terms of films that portray abuse and other character dramas, this film does some things well, but is far from the final word, if only by rights of what a short time frame it covers. For what it’s worth, I think this film does a good job with the constraints it has, but the framing device of her cuffed to the bed and the film’s desperate exposition prevent it from really satisfying its role as a character portrait, and though the film is engaging and there are eerie sequences peppered throughout, it’s more uncomfortable than frightening to watch, so it’s not really satisfying as a straight horror film, either. It seems that this movie had a lot of potential, but its framing device and its message are just a little too ill-suited for each other to work.

If thematic elements of sexual abuse and misogyny are triggering for you, skip out on this movie. There are no graphic scenes of sexual violence, and the film does a good job of never sexualizing her pain, but her pain is sexualized by other characters and the context, with or without graphic portrayals, is disturbing. If you’re just looking for something spooky to throw on, this film is tense and engaging, but you should be ready to delve into its subject matter.

Despite my personal hang-ups with the film, however, I think it has the potential to be helpful. Regardless of how the film holds up under scrutiny or how much it can say about such a dense topic, sometimes it is enough to know that you are not alone, to encounter media that mirrors your experiences. I’m glad that films like this exist about abuse. I just wish we had better ones.

Editor's Note: All articles for Her Campus at the University of Utah are the opinions and beliefs of the writers and do not reflect Her Campus at the University of Utah, the University of Utah or Her Campus as an international magazine.

Photo credits: 1, 2, 3, 4.