Film Review – Shut In
The snowy thriller Shut In revolves around a child psychologist and her disabled stepson who get trapped in their house that may or may not be haunted during a winter storm. That she is the worst child psychologist since Hugh Grant in Nine Months and the most apparent impairment of the stepson is a raging case of puberty is the least of the film’s troubles.
Naomi Watts plays Dr. Mary Portman, whose stepson Stephen (Charlie Heaton) causes a car accident that kills his father and renders him practically bedridden with an apparent traumatic brain injury. He doesn’t speak or respond much to stimuli, so Mary’s main duties are feeding, bathing, and dressing him. The physical and emotional stress of being a caregiver as well as running a practice in an adjacent office next to her house causes Mary to envision terrible things happening to Stephen, and though she admits that they were very close when he was a young child, their interactions now are perfunctory at best and neglectful at worst. Before Mary leaves for work in the morning, she parks Stephen’s wheelchair in front of the television or a front window – it is never clear if she checks on him or not during her workday. Her work with special-needs children, namely a deaf child named Tom (Jacob Tremblay), demonstrates her capacity for patience and empathy, but both are waning towards Stephen, who she is planning to send away to a longterm-care facility.
From a screenplay by Christina Hodson, Shut In revolves around people who have literally and figuratively walled themselves off from the world, and sympathy for Watts’s character is continually tested as the plot becomes more contrived and obvious. Repeatedly, Mary is offered help with Stephen and turns it down, even as her treatment of him becomes more detached and cold. With a heavy winter storm approaching, she is approached by Doug (David Cubitt), the father of one of her patients who obviously likes her and offers to share a hotel suite he rented to ride out the bad weather, but she declines. Though she assures Doug that his son’s volatile behavior is just a severe case of growing pains, exposition about Stephen’s similar troubles and her repeated intentions to send him away don’t mesh with the persona of an intuitive child psychologist. It isn’t hard to suspect the situation between Mary and Stephen isn’t all it seems, and when little Tom runs away from his group home and appears in her garage one frosty night, only to escape into the snowy woods less than an hour later as she phones for help, any doubts as to who is pulling the veil over her eyes are quickly vanquished.
The lone outlet for Mary’s anxiety and fears is her video chat with a colleague (Oliver Platt), who himself dismisses the strange noises and shadows she sees at night as manifestations of grief, stress, and poor sleeping habits (several scenes recalled J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage). When the truth is finally revealed and the culprit admitting, “The longer I did nothing, the easier it got,” the real blame is more on Mary’s negligence in spotting obvious details. Incidentally, the film’s short running time (91 minutes) fails to allow a natural progression in either Stephen’s condition or Mary’s mental state, so we never quite believe in the presented tropes of the genre: is the patient really that sick? Is Mary just being selfish? Why did they relegate Jacob Tremblay to the role of a basically inert MacGuffin? Why does it take police all night to respond to a missing child, but Oliver Platt can race across icy roads in no time?
While the film begins as a drama between mother and child, it quickly morphs into a standard thriller about the definition of a mother, and on whom Mary wants to focus her mothering instincts. Naomi Watts – so wonderful in better horror fare like The Ring or thrillers like Mulholland Drive and Funny Games – does the best she can here with a comparatively inferior character, but Charlie Heaton, who broke out as the protective and lovelorn older brother in last summer’s Stranger Things, and Jacob Tremblay, Oscar-nominated for his role in 2015’s Room, are stymied in roles that require too little in the way of nuance or are lacking in enough screen time to show real depth. By the third act, we have seen so much of so little that the outcome leaves everyone shortchanged.