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Shut In

November 11, 2016
Shut In

Holding a press screening late on the Thursday evening before a movie’s release is just a hair less damning than not screening it for press at all. Maybe the strategy is to tire the reviewers out? I know I can’t really muster the strength to really hate on Shut In the way it probably deserves, at least.

I mean, sure, I hated watching it. It’s clumsily-constructed, unimaginative, predictable, and boring. I might believe that it’s a cheap sendup of the woman-in-danger horror subgenre, except there aren’t any jokes. No, Shut In takes itself very seriously, and insults the audience to think they might follow suit. But, when all is told, it’s a big, fat nothing of a movie. There’s not enough here to bother hating.

There’s the idea of a movie, starting with the woman and the danger to put her in. Mary Portman (Naomi Watts) is a child psychologist caring for her unresponsive son, Stephen (Charlie Heaton), in an isolated house in Maine. The remote placement of the house, especially as the winter snows build up, reflects her psychological isolation and estrangement in symbolism blunt enough for a dull middle-schooler to follow.

And then one of Mary’s patients, a foster child named Tom (Jacob Tremblay), breaks into her house one night, only to run away again and be lost in the snowy woods. Her guilt over losing Tom compounds her grief over losing her husband and son. This, too, is strewn with Meaning, since Tom was about to be sent to a special school in Boston, just like the one Stephen was headed for when the car accident killed his father and crippled him. But just in case that picture wasn’t already clear, it gets a nice explicit description by Mary’s own therapist, Dr. Wilson (Oliver Platt).

It’s hardly the only thing that gets explained in a big info-dump. Like the fact that Stephen is actually Mary’s stepson, and that he’d felt very close to her before his violent behavior got him expelled and the accident rendered him unresponsive. Or the details of his post-accident condition, which would make the eventual twist even easier to see coming than it already is. As a rule of thumb: if your story’s tension relies on hiding information from the audience that characters know and have no in-story reason to conceal, then it’s poorly-written at best and probably cheating.

Anyway, after Tom goes missing, Mary’s psychological condition deteriorates along with the symbolic weather. She had been having nightmares of euthanizing Stephen, but now she also sees Tom clomping through the halls, and even hears strange noises in the walls during the day. Of course it’s obvious to us that Tom is actually still alive and in the house, but the only reason Mary doesn’t put two and two together when she finds a credenza moved away from the access door to a crawl space is that the story needs her to remain ignorant.

The script is shot through with this sort of convenient plotting, where elements arise haphazardly, justified only by the story’s extrinsic needs rather than any intrinsic logic. Once the antagonist is revealed, for instance, Mary repeatedly subdues him, only to turn her back rather than incapacitate him. One time is maybe explainable, but by the third it’s obvious she keeps making the same mistake because the story needs her to, and screenwriter Christina Hodson has no other idea how to get where she wants to go.

The same is true of Tom’s deafness. Oh, did I forget to mention that Tom is deaf? well, to be fair, the script seems to forget that point too. People talk to Tom a lot, and often they’re nowhere near his face where maybe he could read their lips or facial expressions. His deafness really only serves one purpose, which is only even comprehensible after spoiling all the twists and even then is hardly apparent. And again it’s a convenience to paper over a giant hole that burst through the plot, and that Hodson fixed with a stopgap rather than a proper reworking of the story.

The core idea and twist maybe could have become a decent thriller, but bringing it into coherent sense would require an effort that the filmmakers are clearly not interested in spending. Instead they slap patches on patches on patches, while considerations like theme and character — the things that might actually make the movie good or bad, rather than an empty, fragile shell — fall by the wayside.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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