Stephen (Stranger Things alumnus Charlie Heaton) doesn’t want to be sent away from the family home. His parents have, they say, tried everything. He just isn’t behaving and there has been some kind of incident at school. Before he reaches the special school selected for him, however, a car crash changes everything. Flash forward two years and his widowed stepmother Mary (Naomi Watts) is spoon feeding him whilst he sits in a wheelchair, gently taking him through physiotherapy exercises, quietly contemplating drowning him in the bath. He’s not her son anymore, she says, just a body she looks after. But is there more to Stephen than meets the eye?
Mary is a child psychologist. It’s important to the plot, yet it’s one of many basic details that this film struggles to make believable, because she has no idea how to interact with children – there’s a whole lot of touching, invading of space and projecting of emotion that amounts to a recipe for disaster. When one night a small boy turns up on her doorstep, her immediate instinct is to try and keep him. Whilst this is understandable in somebody who has had her previous hopes for parenthood dashed, her expectations are bizarre in a professional. The subsequent disappearance of the boy and her flimsy assertion that he must have left might be expected to draw the attention of the police, but instead she carries on as usual, just a little more angstful than before. This creates concern in her doctor (Oliver Platt, by far the best thing in the film), who begins to suspect that she has serious mental health problems – yet still she is left in sole charge of a vulnerable youth she has said she can’t cope with, in a house about to be cut off by an incoming storm.
Poor research aside, there’s lots of potential in this set-up. The complex emotions Mary must be feeling, the mystery of the missing child, the uncertainty of Stephen’s situation and the isolation promised by the storm all offer dramatic opportunities. Shut In squanders them all. Expect egotistic speeches, grandiose threats, lots of screaming and running round the corridors, accessorised with horror clichés like doors being broken down, and interspersed with repeated shots of a hammer which is presumably supposed to intimidate but instead makes the film feel like a DIY store advert. It’s remarkable that something this simplistic could be as convoluted as it is, with hints of abandoned bits of script scattered everywhere, yet each plot strand is tied up in the most banal way possible. Watts tries to act but can only do so in short bursts, and only Platt really comes out of it with any dignity.
Also problematic here is the pacing. Scenes just don’t fit together properly. After the doctor becomes aware of an emergency and drives hastily to the rescue, for instance, he proceeds to stand outside for 15 minutes before actually doing anything. It’s hard to imagine that this was the best version that could be salvaged from the editing room. Some nice exterior shots and a well shot opening sequence suggest that director Farren Blackburn is capable of better. Shut In feels unfinished and scrappy. If you want to watch Watts wriggling around naked and bound in a bathtub, it may entertain you for five minutes, but the only thing that’s scary about it is the waste of talent.