If there’s one single thing about movie marketing I absolutely cannot stand, it’s the bait and switch. It usually happens when either the studio knows they have a dog on their hands through test marketing, or they find themselves with a movie on their hands that defies a target market. I remember there was a big stink from fans of the 2012 movie John Carter, based on the John Carter of Mars series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, because of a weak and ineffective marketing campaign. The trouble here was with the movie, a wretched piece of badly written drivel. When movies can spend close to $100 million alone on marketing, sometimes a movie is just so poor that the studio cuts its losses and declines to throw good money after bad. An example of not knowing who to market to is the recent movie A Monster Calls, with an ad campaign that tried to appeal to the same crowd as those who loved The Iron Giant and The BFG. Last night’s movie, Shut In, is a classic example of marketing bait and switch.
If you recall the campaign, it featured Naomi Watts stranded in her remote home during a blizzard while being apparently stalked by a supernatural presence. As you can see from the trailer below, as well as someone talking skeptically about ghosts, and the irrational belief in them, the image of a child disappearing from view, and a hand closing over Watt’s mouth in the darkness, all this leads you to believe that Shut In is a ghost story. I’m here to tell you now that is not the case. I don’t spoil movies, and this is the farthest I’ll go, even on a movie I disliked, but this peeved me to no end.
I confess, I didn’t go into this movie thinking it was going to be all that great. The ad I saw in late 2016 didn’t really strike me, and my wife thought it looked pretty by-the-numbers. The main reason I watched it was because of Naomi Watts. Here’s another confession; I’ve had a strong crush on Watts since I saw Mulholland Drive, back in 2001. I thought – and still think – that her performance as Rita/Diane in that movie is the best female performance I’ve ever seen. Not only that, I consider her performance in 21 Grams as the second best female performance I’ve ever seen. To me, she’s a spectacularly talented actress that elevates any production she’s in, and while she has a terrific range, her highest profile roles have been in edgier, darker material, like the two I just mentioned, but also in Michael Haneke’s incredibly nihilistic remake of his own Funny Games.
In Shut In, Watts plays Mary Portman, recently widowed and adjusting to her new life as the full time caregiver of Steven, her teenage stepson (Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton), who exists in a persistent vegetative state from the same accident that killed her husband. A pediatric psychologist, Mary is on the verge of a breakthrough with one of her youngest patients when this kid disappears – cue the events of the trailer. From a 2012 Black List script by Christina Hodson (that year’s list also included Arrival and John Wick), Farren Blackburn turns in a professional directing job, though lacking in flair. The script, however, is a straight potboiler. Hodson’s story is mediocre and relies WAY too heavily on dream sequences, to the point of no return really. Oliver Platt’s character is there specifically to turn Mary in to an unreliable narrator type of character in the minds of the audiences, and the dream sequences are there to bolster this. The trouble is, there’s almost no intrigue generated by the story, and the dream sequences are not trippy, just presented as reality until Watts snaps out of sleep after hearing another new noise.
What the movie succeeds at is showing Watts in a good light. She acts the part as if the script was worth reading, and I actually enjoyed her performance immensely, but then, I’m biased. And kudos to the costume designer here – armed with an endless assortment of chunky sweaters and skinny jeans, Mary is the impossibly cute lady next door. I will say that while the movie’s one nude scene is in keeping with the dark tone of the movie, I guess I just didn’t get why Watts had to be naked in that scene. If Blackburn was intending it to be a literal moment of true vulnerability, it just comes off as crass and exploitative.
But the movie has bigger problems than this. In fact, its biggest problem is so tectonic that it completely derailed my watching of the movie from that point on. It’s ludicrous, and I’ve rarely seen a reveal THAT bad. I already knew the script was on the 2012 Black List from a review I did a little while ago, which amazed me. It’s a real piece of hackwork – the kind of which you hope is down to inexperience rather than spectacularly bad judgment. You’ve heard the overused phrase “to jump the shark” – in Shut In, the movie jumps the shark so high it needs a parachute to land safely.
The final act of the movie will feel familiar to anyone who’s watched Kubrick’s The Shining, in terms of the plot points as it stumbles towards its climax – it’s not a direct rip off, but if you watch this and recall The Shining you’ll likely see what I’m referring to. But Hodson is no Stephen King, and Blackburn is no Stanley Kubrick, and as good as Watts is here there’s nothing she could do to make this any more than a barely watchable mess.