Watching Gerald’s Game, the new Netflix movie and latest Stephen King property to be adapted for film, is an emotionally draining experience. It’s a psychological horror story that plays out almost entirely on a bed, where our heroine, Jessie (Carla Gugino), had been handcuffed by her husband, Gerald, before he suffered a fatal heart attack on top of her. For the duration of the film, Jessie is alone in a secluded lake house with basically no hope of rescue, no food, and no phone within reach. What began as a weekend adventure to put the zest back in a stale marriage turns into Jessie being literally chained up for some rape cosplay, then left in her silk slip to waste away as she confronts hallucinations of her bastard husband antagonizing her — while an even stronger manifestation of her subconscious forces her to unpack a childhood trauma that made her susceptible to a scoundrel like Gerald at all.
After pulling and prying and attempting to yank herself free, Jessie realizes she’s only got one choice left. Those cuffs aren’t coming off as long as the skin is on her hand, and blood sure makes an effective lubricant. So she willingly degloves herself. Record scratch — what? Yes, that word means what you think it means. After a few days spent watching her dead husband decompose on the floor, fending off a hungry dog that’s waiting for its next red meat entrée, and exposing the demons in her psychological closet, Jessie realizes she won’t make it through one more night and takes extreme measures to free herself. Her one blessed reprieve has been a glass of water that Gerald left within reach before dying, and after shattering the glass, she goes through her own 127 Hours moment, cutting a Y incision up her wrist and into her palm, then forcing her hand down through the cuff as the skin peels upward like a latex glove coming off.
After spending a whole movie in the theater of Jessie’s mind, watching her grit her teeth as blood and bone start surfacing is a breathtaking act of gore. And by breathtaking, I mean that literally. If you don’t spend this scene with your own right hand clutched to your chest, you’re some kind of monster. But in addition to being a real shock to the system, the skin-stripping is also a concise expression of what makes Gerald’s Game such an effective movie overall: Jessie is only able to execute the degloving after she has, for the first time in her life, laid herself psychologically bare.
Gugino is given the unique opportunity of playing a bound woman at her most vulnerable, finally able to engage in what’s basically talk therapy with a stronger, idealized version of herself. As she slowly dies, Jessie enters into a conversation with the strongest and weakest parts of herself — and it’s only after she accesses the darkest corridors of her emotional maze that she’s able to make peace with her past as a victim and finally envision herself as the hero of her own story. It’s power born of ultimate fragility; in her most physically weakened state, Jessie is able to combine desperation with a new spark of self-worth and will herself through the most physically excruciating experience of her life.
The degloving scene is memorable for obvious and horrifying reasons, but also because it depicts a woman finding a strength she never knew she had, propelling her forward toward self-rescue (she’s still starving, alone in seclusion, and at this point bleeding to death, after all) — if she can make it through this gruesome moment, she can begin the rest of her life. Freeing herself from the cuffs via self-mutilation is a poignant, crystallizing moment: Jessie realizes her life is worth fighting for. It’s also a damn fine injection of the grotesque into a movie that otherwise exists in the realm of paranoia. Come for the dynamic female lead, stay for the exposed tendons and metacarpals.