Thrillers have one job, and it’s in the name: they need to thrill their audience. Everything, be it the performances, the direction or the editing, is in the service of aiding and abetting the adrenaline junkies in the theater in getting their high. When it works, as it did with last year’s spectacularly unnerving “The Gift,” the result is a movie that stays with the viewer long after the credits have rolled. When it doesn’t, as is the unfortunate case of “Shut In,” the outcome is nothing more than an hour and a half of wasted time.
The premise, to be fair, is an innately creepy one. Mary (Naomi Watts, “King Kong”) is a child psychologist who has to split her time between her practice and caring for her catatonic son, Stephen (Charlie Heaton, “Stranger Things”). After a young boy (Jacob Tremblay, “Room”) goes missing and is presumed dead, she begins to think that his spirit is haunting her. As a massive winter storm bears down on them, Mary and the spirit — or whatever is causing the disturbances — are trapped indoors.
That synopsis has a few things going for it: a claustrophobic setting, a fear of the unknown and a bit of a man (or woman, as the case may be) vs. nature theme. Somewhat stunningly, director Farren Blackburn (“Marvel’s Daredevil”) manages to take that promise and do absolutely nothing with it, instead choosing to focus on the same hackneyed jump scares that plague every two-bit horror or thriller flick.
Mary hears something outside. A raccoon jumps out at her. She hears something upstairs. The kindly gentleman who has taken a liking to her jumps out at her, as one does. Something supernatural jumps out at her. It’s a dream. It’s the same fake-out nonsense that has become the bane of these types of movies, put in by writers who have realized that they don’t have anything interesting in their film to keep audiences invested.
“Shut In” fits that profile to a T. The constant fake-out jump scares are tedious, but at least predicting how the overwrought build-up will amount to nothing can become a game in and of itself. Beyond that, the movie offers nothing. The performances, beyond a sadly underused Tremblay, range between disinterested and hammy to the point of hilarity. After the initial eeriness of the premise wears itself out, there’s no tension at all, just scene after scene of jump scares and Mary worrying about jump scares.
With all that in mind, the first two acts of “Shut In” are bad, but they’re forgettably bad. They’re inoffensively bad, more flat-out boring than anything else. Then the third act begins, and it begins with a twist so ill-advised and laughably ridiculous that it genuinely boggles the mind. There’s no build-up to it, no foreshadowing. It’s just a sudden left turn for the story to take for no other reason than, “Hey, other thrillers have twists. We should have a twist, too.”
What follows is a solid five minutes of exposition, so the audience understands that the subject of this twist is singlehandedly responsible for everything bad that has happened in the movie. What it amounts to is an extended game of hide-and-seek, with Mary hiding in a closet for what feels like a small eternity. Once again, there’s no tension, because not only does the audience not care about the characters, they’re still recovering from the hilarious shock to the system that was that twist.
“Shut In” could have been a tense, claustrophobic thriller with a talented cast. Instead, it never fails to treat itself with the utmost seriousness, even in its silliest moments, and it settles for something lesser. It’s boring and lazy in its storytelling, and outside of some genuinely well-shot moments, there’s little above average or even plainly average to the rest of it.