There’s one thing a film absolutely needs to do: it needs to generate some kind of emotion, even if it’s anger. Films fail because of a number of reasons, but the most successful failures are the kind that take risks. Audiences will understand and appreciate the attempt more than anything, and often they’re willing to overlook flaws in favor of the creativity. So when a film like Farren Blackburn’s Shut In comes along – something so tediously uninteresting, so confoundingly non-confrontational – viewers rebel against it simply because of its blandness. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of a fairly strong cast including Naomi Watts, Jacob Tremblay of Room fame, and Charlie Heaton from Stranger Things. These are fine actors, and yet not one of them can thaw the frigid icicle that is Shut In.
The film starts with a familiar premise – Mary (Watts), a child psychologist, struggles to take care of her handicapped son after an accident kills her husband and leaves Stephen (Heaton) virtually brain-dead. She’s balancing stresses of work with the difficulties of caring for an incapacitated child, and they’re weighing on her so much that she’s beginning to have night terrors and presumed hallucinations of people entering her house, along with the disappearance of a young boy named Tom (Tremblay) who was one of her patients. Add to that the fact that a terrible Maine snowstorm is brewing and it’s a recipe for disaster.
Except Christina Hodson’s script never finds its footing. Shut In sounds like it could be an eerie thriller involving a cold nor’easter that cuts Mary off from society while dealing with some creepy goings-on in her old-fashioned cabin, but the film is basically dead on arrival. The opening scenes lack any sort of tension whatsoever, with Blackburn simply going through the motions to tick off a checklist of ideas for a psychological film. You’ve got an unreliable main character; she’s got a creepy son, angsty when he was well but now simply creepy when sick; you’ve got dream sequences where Mary imagines scary things going bump in her house. It’s so formulaic and uninteresting that one expects Hodson’s script will veer off sharply from its setup in the same manner as Stephen’s car accident, but instead, the introductory exposition drags on for a good half of the film before anything begins to occur.
At that point, the audience is already frozen solid – it’s going to take a big surprise to engage the viewer, and Shut In never delivers. The obvious twist becomes a reality, meant as some big reveal but instead simply highlighting the stupidity of the story – Hodson’s script is stagnant, but its most frustrating aspect is the amount of disbelief the viewer must suspend for the plot to make any kind of sense. Even the big snowstorm peters out into nothingness, a couple of snowflakes here and there and some snow drifts thrown in to make it look like Mary couldn’t leave her house even if she wasn’t already a self-described shut-in who seems to live a fair distance from any civilization anyway.
Watts and Heaton do their best, but there’s no saving what amounts to boring characters on paper. Tremblay doesn’t even get any lines, so he does his best with the limited screentime he receives. Hodson’s script feels ill-formed anyway, or at least severely edited; there’s an insanely jarring moment early in the film where Mary inexplicably retrieves a hat and scarf (with a close-up inserted to show that the tag on them says STEPHEN) and gives them to Tom, saying, “Stay warm,” as though his guardian wouldn’t ensure that anyway. It seems like a moment that would lead to a much more interesting plot line, as though a twist later in the film would show that Mary asked Tom to intentionally run away to her house; instead, it’s just a scene that adds to the unintentional surrealism of the film, an event that forces the audience to wrap their heads around how Shut In was ever green-lighted.
And yet, Shut In isn’t unwatchable. It’s not a horrible movie in any way. It’s just so boring and trivial that most viewers will leave the theater and forget all about it. Perhaps that’s the best possible outcome for Blackburn and Hodson – for everyone to shut out Shut In, to forget its existence and move on to something with more substance.