If you’re in any doubt as to the dearth of decent movie roles available to women of a certain age — certain never to see 40 again, at any rate — then buy a ticket for “Shut In.” In this achingly inept thriller, you will see Naomi Watts do what she can to sell a plot of such preposterousness that the derisory laughter around me began barely 20 minutes in.
Playing Mary, a recently widowed child psychologist, Ms. Watts looks becomingly fragile and perpetually worried. Her 18-year-old stepson, Stephen (Charlie Heaton), once a psychologically disturbed ball of hate, is now vegetative and paralyzed after a car accident. Though living in a commodious — and, of course, isolated — New England home, Mary cares for Stephen without so much as a cleaning lady to help. So when one of her patients, a little deaf lad (Jacob Tremblay), goes missing and bumps in the night disturb her sleep, Mary wonders: Is there a ghost or is she bonkers?
Filmed in rural Quebec and mostly confined to the interior of the house, “Shut In” is just that. Neither its director, Farren Blackburn, nor his screenwriter, Christina Hodson, could have believed that this bromidic nonsense would generate chills. Careening camera angles and squeak-creak-crackle sound effects don’t substitute for actual tension, and high-end cinematography (by Yves Bélanger, who gave “Brooklyn” its swanky sheen) doesn’t replace imagination. Ms. Watts deserves better, and so do you.
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As thrillers go, “Shut In” is conspicuously short of thrills. It’s an undistinguished and predictable hodgepodge, so blandly generic as to suggest that it was cobbled together by filmmakers referencing a how-to handbook who picked spare parts from other, better thrillers . Director Farren Blackburn and scripter Christina Hodson are billed as the responsible parties. But, given the prominent acknowledgement of a reshoot crew in the closing credits, it’s quite possible other cooks also were involved in the preparation of these slightly warmed leftovers.
Naomi Watts stars as Mary Portman, a child psychologist who conducts therapy sessions on the grounds of her isolated Maine home. She never wants to be too far from her 18-year-old stepson, Stephen (Charlie Heaton of Netflix’s “Stranger Things”), who was left paralyzed after an auto mishap that killed his father. But she’s obviously devoted to her work, and especially attentive to difficult patients such as Tom (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”), a deaf youngster whose disappearance serves as what scriptwriting gurus refer to as an inciting incident.
Tom runs away from foster care and briefly turns up at Mary’s home before vanishing without a trace, triggering virtually nonstop news reports about a statewide search for the boy. Indeed, it seems like the local media are covering only one other story: forecasts for an upcoming ice storm that likely will cause power outages for folks in rural areas.
That is what the scriptwriting gurus refer to as foreshadowing.
Mary already is stressed-out and sleep-deprived when she starts to hear strange sounds echoing through her house late at night. Add a few “Ha! It’s only a dream!” fake-out scares to the mix, and pretty soon she starts to believe that something supernatural is going on. But when the ice storm cometh, a threat more corporeal than paranormal emerges, the nods to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” accumulate — and, yes, the lights go out.
To give Watts fair credit, she is frequently compelling and altogether credible as Mary. Oliver Platt is aptly intense as Mary’s deeply concerned psychiatrist, even though most of his performance is quite literally phoned in (or, to be more precise, Skyped in). It’s difficult to say much about other members of the cast — including David Cubitt as the father of one of Mary’s patients — without running the risk of spilling beans. And that’s not really fair, even when appraising leftovers.
The story: A car accident kills the husband of child psychologist Mary Portman (Naomi Watts) and leaves her teenage stepson Stephen (Charlie Heaton) paralysed. She isolates herself in her house in snow-covered New England to look after Stephen. When one of Mary’s patients, a boy named Tom (Jacob Tremblay), goes missing before a snowstorm hits, she becomes convinced that his ghost is haunting her and her bedridden stepson.
This is a chiller made frigid in the true sense of “dark stormy night” as a snowstorm hovers over it like a confining blanket.
Is it a ghost, spirit, creature or the demonic kid from The Omen that is lurking inside the big, underlit house sitting in severe seclusion in the sprawling snow?
Mary keeps hearing strange sounds – footsteps, voices – and occasionally glimpses the silhouette of Tom in the ghostly dimness.
“You’re a rational adult, there’s no such thing as ghosts,” Portman is reminded.
Alas, when you eventually do know the cause of her fears, Shut In loses its supernatural grip on you and becomes predictable.
The basement looks typically forbidding and the garage, located separately for added tension, requires the poor woman to tread into the dark outside with trepidation.
A bathtub becomes particularly significant, a la What Lies Beneath (2000), when Watts’ naked body is exposed. And there is the usual horror-genre trick of sudden but unreal nightmare sequences that are essentially red herrings to make viewers jump on cue.
British director Farren Blackburn (TV’s Daredevil) is most effective when he takes his sweet time slow-cooking the mystery in a minimalist form (he seems reluctant to truly scare) and less so when he eventually turns it into a hurried, improbable version of The Shining.
There is a sense of dread and vulnerability about the motherly damsel in distress, as Watts replicates her chiller experience from The Ring horror flicks.
Mary stays dutifully rooted at one spot to monitor and look after the health of acutely impaired 18-year- old Stephen (Heaton from Stranger Things) to the point of mental exhaustion. The stricken youth, previously wayward and destructive, is immobilised, a silent living statue completely dependent on his stepmother whom he looks at with unfeeling coldness.
You wonder about Mary’s unshakeable devotion because the dude is such a bratty, unlikeable character.
Probably only mothers wallowing in frozen, guilt-laced discomfort would understand this situation and only horror fans would sense what is coming.