Shut In Review: Shutting Out the Surprise

Predictable as this film’s atmospheric ingredients are, it doesn’t make it easy to anticipate the nature of the twist

Director: Farren Blackburn

Cast: Naomi Watts, Charlie Heaton, Jacob Tremblay, Oliver Platt

Rating: 2.5 stars

Shut In is the kind of self-conscious psychological thriller that lies somewhere between early-Shyamalan and present-day-Shyamalan on the B-movie-twist scale. It’s still perversely welcoming to watch a spook-fest not reliant on supernatural tropes, vengeful ghouls, exorcism, needy dead folks and intelligent spirits for a change – a throwback to the “good old days” of real-life terror.

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Yet, some things never change: there’s the picturesque creaky house in the middle of foggy-nowhere, an icy lake, a dark past, a noisy storm, creepy children (it was only a matter of time before a filmmaker transformed Room’s adorable Jacob Tremblay into an Omen-ish presence), enough pristine snow to start a gothic-horror franchise, startlingly loud after-dark sound cues, nightmares as narrative red herrings and, most importantly, three tragically unhinged human minds.

Clinical psychologist Mary Portman (Naomi Watts) – doesn’t her name sound like the kind you’d come across at the corner of a small-town daily? (“Doctor family slaughtered by own twins!”) – struggles to take care of her paralyzed troubled-stepson stereotype, Steven (Stanger Things’ Charlie Heaton), after an accident kills her husband. She has deep affection for the once-pleasant boy, but is always on the verge of sending him away in true American-dysfunctional style.

Shut In is the kind of self-conscious psychological thriller that lies somewhere between early-Shyamalan and present-day-Shyamalan on the B-movie-twist scale.

She instead invests her emotions into the recovery of a deaf, unruly orphan (Tremblay). She finds solace in fixing the kid. When he mysteriously goes missing, the house begins to behave like a true horror-movie protagonist.

The irony of a child psychologist unable to set her own mental house in order isn’t lost on us – a sentimental device later exploited and squeezed for every drop’s worth in a brutally stretched-out and hammy climax. To be fair, predictable as its atmospheric ingredients are, the film doesn’t make it easy to anticipate the nature of the twist.

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Perhaps because this moment comes earlier than is the norm, disguising itself in a sort of cry-wolf magic realism, which in turn forces the last thirty minutes play out like a standard slasher-flick. Or perhaps because we’ve been just made to look in the wrong direction. For its initial period, the film borders on the realms of the ghostly, tiptoeing between two oft-abused horror genres, until it yanks you back into the factual world, back into the confines of spasmodic heads.

To be fair, predictable as its atmospheric ingredients are, the film doesn’t make it easy to anticipate the nature of the twist.

Early on, when Mary investigates the source of strange noises outside the house, you can smell the classic fake-out coming – a raccoon in this case. Yet she walks ever so slowly, on and on, until the poor creature finally appears. Which is when, again, conditioned to years of similar motifs, you immediately expect these nervous chuckles to be destroyed by the real thing. This happens, too, but I’ve already prepared myself for this jarring inevitability by now – blocking my ears, instead of my eyes.

This is not to say the film is ineffective; it is designed to make sense if you look back and contemplate on the audacity of the revelation, too. Mary’s predicament is contrived to be disorienting enough – what with the repeated use of vivid flashbacks meshing with wishful memories. She isn’t exactly mother-of-the-year material, but then what traumatized cinematic soul ever is?

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This predictability of the film’s inherent unpredictability is hard to shake off. The actors, all of them, look a bit too urgent, like they know the twisted tone of the story they’re occupying. Oliver Platt, in particular, plays an annoyingly consequential colleague of Mary’s, who spouts psychobabble and appears destined to fall prey to the frivolousness of collateral damage.

This is not to say the film is ineffective; it is designed to make sense if you look back and contemplate on the audacity of the revelation, too. 

Naomi Watts can certainly pull off these pale-faced roles in her sleep. Given that she spends most of this film trying to identify sleep from reality, she could have done little else to lift it out of its misty, by-the-books gloom. There’s an indecent volume of foreplay, and an enormously lengthy aftermath, with the stuff in between amounting to an occasionally jumpy yet gimmicky portrait of human nature.

I suspect Shut In could have been haunting as an unsettling family drama, with no ghost of any genre looming large. And with M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, Split, gathering some legit “he’s back!” buzz, this one stands alone as the year’s Average Joe of thrillers.

I suspect Shut In could have been haunting as an unsettling family drama, with no ghost of any genre looming large.

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