Horror movies are not so fun when daily life is scarier.
I couldn’t jettison that thought while watching “Shut In” Friday morning at my local theater, where less than a half-dozen people sat in a dark room to watch the latest from director Farren Blackburn (“Hammer of the Gods”). It’s neither the film’s nor Blackburn’s fault that this week has been historically painful. To focus energy on anything resembling pop culture is exceedingly difficult right now. Films, television, a new Tribe Called Quest album: all of it seems to pale in comparison to the specter of Donald Trump’s presidency.
To exacerbate matters, “Shut In” — despite its impressive cast — is, well, not good. Today it doesn’t feel appropriate to be negative, to criticize artwork that does almost nothing interesting narratively or aesthetically. But here we are.
Penned by freshman screenwriter Christina Hodson, the story bears a painfully familiar resemblance to horror fare of the past. It opens with a horrific car crash, resulting in the death of a father and, in a way, a son. Now-widowed Mary (Naomi Watts) has the unenviable task of raising her bed-ridden, catatonic son, Stephen (Charlie Heaton, “Stranger Things”), while still having a career in child psychology. In the absence of active children or a spouse, Mary seeks out human connection in her work.
She forges substantive relationships with her young patients, most of whom are children. It’s clear from the onset that the doctor-patient dynamic works both ways. In her medical expertise, she’s providing psychological and emotional aid to these troubled kids. Conversely, the children act as a surrogate, satisfying her maternal, nurturing instincts.
It’s an unhealthy dynamic, and one that leads to her subtle attachment to Tom (Jacob Tremblay, “Room”), a deaf, bellicose boy who breaks the arms of other children at school. “I can help him,” she insists to a child agency eager to ship the juvenile delinquent to a more contained space. “These things take time.”
Time is one thing that’s not on Mary’s side, though. Tom inexplicably shows up to Mary’s home one night, leading to a series of scenes that don’t add up to anything approximating intrigue. The presentation is dull, the plot is plodding, and the characters are sketches of people we’ve seen in better films.
So what happens? A ghost appears — it/they always do — to haunt both Tom and Stephen. In an act of self-preservation, Mary must fight her own son as he slowly descends into a demonic creature. Tom, I guess, finds salvation.
Concurrent to all of this, Blackburn intersperses one-on-one conversations between Mary and her own psychologist (and, apparently, only friend), Dr. Wilson (Oliver Platt). Wilson insists she’s merely having some exaggerated night terrors, or insomnia. “It’s in your head,” he says. We’ve seen this dialogue before. The condescending doctor insisting to his ailing patient that s/he is, in fact, not ailing. There’s no depth to this material. The kicker? These sessions are had over Skype! The only explanation is that Wilson is one of those pro-bono psychologists.
In Skype’s short history, it has never been used effectively in film. That’s because watching two actors pretend to be in different rooms (or states or countries) while they attempt to have a meaningful conversation never works. That Pratt and Watts couldn’t film these sequences — and trust me, there are multiple Skype sessions — in person speaks to the film’s general unwillingness to go the extra mile, to enliven. It doesn’t matter that Mary has to confront the moral reckoning of potentially murdering Stephen to save herself and Tom. It doesn’t matter that Dr. Wilson deeply cares for Mary, and will be prescribing her an anti-depressant that will surely be ineffective in the face of a malevolent menace of a teenager. It doesn’t matter that Stephen is trying to obliterate everyone but his mom because he doesn’t want to be replaced by Tom.
These facts don’t matter because “Shut In” doesn’t care to make them matter. Ideologically, morally, and narratively, the film contains no point of view, no perspective that suggests human beings joined forces to create a piece of art they can stand behind. This week, the film feels like yet another product we didn’t want and but got stuck with anyway.