Written by: Christina Hodson
Directed by: Farren Blackburn
Starring: Naomi Watts, Charlie Heaton, and Jacob Tremblay
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Some fears can't be shut out.
A glum, dreary familiarity hangs over Shut In, a sullen, snowbound New England chiller that conjures up echoes of disquieted spirts and the haunting, hushed tones of personal tragedy. For over half the film, it certainly looks the part of a solemn, perhaps even dignified ghost story, one that’s been handsomely shot and features what you might consider to be an overqualified cast. You even start to talk yourself into thinking director Farren Blackburn has snuck in quite a surprise here to top off what has been a terrific year for the genre (and pretty horrible otherwise, if I’m being honest). For all its familiarity, Shut In is appropriately gloomy, gripping, and even threatens to be about something, specifically the maternal horrors of a parenthood gone horribly awry.
The mother in question is Mary Portman (Naomi Watts), a psychologist attempting to recover from an unspeakable tragedy: en route to shipping off their troubled son Stephen (Charlie Heaton, inheriting the “moody, disaffected teen” mantle from Dane DeHaan) to a boarding school, her husband has an accident that claims his life. Stephen survives but is left a comatose invalid in need of constant care, a fate Mary struggles with because of her looming guilt. Had she been more willing to help her own son instead of practically dismissing him, her life wouldn’t be in shambles.
Her current struggle with the decision to send him off to a permanent care facility happens to intersect with what she sees as a second chance with one of her patients, a deaf boy named Tom (Jacob Tremblay) whose home life is obviously (if not vaguely) disturbed. When he goes missing, she fears the worst, especially when seemingly supernatural forces descend upon her home at the same time as a monstrous snowstorm. Trapped inside, suffocated by her own regret, she has to reckon with a new threat that intends to unravel her life even more.
Whatever early promise and psychological intrigue Shut In shows fades rather quickly—sure, it looks nice, and Naomi Watts is always welcome in any capacity, but I’ve kind of already seen her in a superior film as a beleaguered mother doing battle with an unrested spirit, you know? The problem with this particular riff on the theme is that it’s far too aimless: what starts as a rock solid premise quickly degenerates into an excuse to trot out the same ghost movie routine we’ve seen so many times this decade. It comes off as a low-rent take on the films James Wan has mastered during this time period, only it’s done with less ingenuity and imagination. Let’s put it this way: the most effective “scare” is a loud, jolting fake-out involving a raccoon.
These jolts occasionally punctuate an increasingly lax narrative that sees Watts trudging through the expected motions and confronting the usual spooky sights and sounds: here’s the fleeting glimpse of Tom’s ghastly visage, here’s a rattling behind the walls that she eventually just kind of shrugs off because it may or may not be the product of a nightmare (this thing has so many fake outs and dreams-within-dreams that it starts to feel like a lost episode of Freddy’s Nightmares). Even the comatose Stephen is acting freaked out and exhibiting strange scratches on his body. Every now and then, Oliver Platt (!) skypes in as a doctor to reassure Mary that she isn’t crazy so much as she’s overstressed. Really, the entire middle act can just be described as “vaguely menacing shit happening” whenever Mary isn’t chatting with her assistant or having an awkward dinner date with a patient’s father.
At some point, you just become complacent: “okay, it’s another one of these things,” you think in the assumption that Shut In will unfold without much of a fuss. It is so clearly, obviously exactly what it looks like—until it isn’t. With about twenty minutes left in the run-time, Blackburn and screenwriter Christina Hodson flip the film on its head rather violently with an out-of-nowhere revelation that’s been hiding in plain sight. You might not expect it to go where it does because it’s so damn silly for an otherwise solemn, serious movie, but Shut In unhinges itself for your pleasure. At the risk of overselling it, I’ll only say that the late turn of events transform it into a trashy delight that make the rest of it worthwhile enough. Most of its first 70 minutes are tepid and forgettable; the rest of it not so much, if only because it dares to be lurid as hell. It also justifies introducing certain extraneous characters, even if it’s only to add them to a growing body count (yes, Shut In unexpectedly turns into a slasher film of sorts, which rules, naturally).
I’m not sure if Blackburn and company calculated this so much as they just kind of careen into it, but I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Shut In seems so committed to its familiar trappings that it practically lulls you into certain expectations only to blindside you with some well-timed lunacy and innuendo. In many ways, it reminds me of The Boy from earlier this year: just as that film promised one thing only to deliver something rather different, so too does Shut In manage to surprise with out-of-nowhere bullshit that at least guarantees it’ll linger somewhere in your mind. It’s arguably not as wacky and great as that film (again, I must temper expectations), but it manages to elevate itself above a morass of bland studio product, if only ever so slightly.
In this regard, it feels less like the cherry on top of this year and more like a preview of what’s to come: after all, January is right around the corner, waiting with its typical assortment of delayed, cast-off genre offerings. Shut In doesn’t send this year out with a bang, nor is it exactly a whimper—it is, however, an admirable effort by a group of filmmakers to wrest the film from the doldrums of mediocrity by resorting to an absurd final act that feels like it was beamed in from another, more daring movie.
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