Shut In: Satisfactory Confinement, by Tyler Smith
D.J. Caruso’s Shut In is an effective – if occasionally lackadaisical – thriller that puts its main character through the ringer before coming to a mostly-satisfying end. The film can be described as functional and efficient, in that it accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is more than can be said for some films. This may seem like damning the film with faint praise, and that is intentional. While this movie contains the occasional stylistic or character flourish, it rarely takes the calculated risks required to make it a genuinely memorable experience. But, with one or two intriguing elements, it is diverting enough while watching to recommend.
The story involves a single mother named Jessica (Rainey Qualley) who is in the process of selling – and moving out of – her grandmother’s rundown country cottage. Jessica can barely provide for her two young children, and the house is starting to rot from the inside, much like the apples in the surrounding orchard. On the last day of preparation, Jessica’s ex-husband Rob (Jake Horowitz) shows up with his shady friend Sammy (Vincent Gallo), both strung out on meth and looking for trouble. An altercation ends with Rob trapping Jessica in a walk-in pantry, with the kids on the other side of the door. As she attempts to escape the pantry, she must instruct her young daughter in taking care of her baby brother, all while navigating the return of the unpredictable Sammy.
There are a surprising number of story elements, given how contained the film is. There are only four characters, not including the baby boy, but each of them contain different motivations and varying levels of complication. Jessica herself is a recovering drug addict whose stint in rehab has rekindled a commitment to her children. She feels a nagging sense of guilt throughout the film, openly doubting her abilities as a mother, and using that to push her to embrace patience and love for others. Sammy is the dark mirror image of Jessica, as his brief rehabilitation has only made him more cynical about the world and its feelings towards the marginalized. As such, he feels no qualms about doing whatever he wants, viewing his actions the same way he sees everything else: as meaningless.
It is the dynamic between Jessica and Sammy that produce the most exciting moments of the film, fueled by a real engagement between Qualley and Gallo. We detest Sammy, but we also see him as a sort of beaten dog, wounded too often to retain any moral perspective. Sammy is hardly an arch villain. He has no plan, only ever following his base instincts. Jessica is able to take advantage of this, because she knows all too well from her own experience how best to manipulate an addict.
Watching Jessica having to directly deal with her own regretful past in order to survive is one of the more satisfying elements of the film, and Rainey Qualley is up to the task, never overplaying her self-pity or heroism. She plays Jessica as a flawed person in a difficult and dangerous situation, drawing upon whatever strength she may have in order to get through it. Given how much time we spend with Jessica, having a lead actress who understands the character is vital.
Both Vincent Gallo and Jake Horowitz are appropriately off-putting, as their mental state makes them unstable and dangerous. As Rob, Horowitz is charismatic but insecure, always vigilant for any possible slight from Jessica. The performance is a far cry from his slick, cocky lead role in the wonderful The Vast of Night, and I’m eager to see what he does next. Gallo, unsurprisingly, is electrifying. We never quite know what he’s going to do or say, and I don’t think he knows either. Gallo is perpetually in the moment, creating a character that is both pathetic and frightening.
Unfortunately, as strong as the character work may be, there are long stretches of the film that fall into a more meditative rhythm. This would be fine if the film were meant to be a straightforward dramatic character study, but it is clearly trying to be a taut, nail biting thriller. Given director D.J. Caruso’s previous work – specifically Disturbia and Eagle Eye – we have no reason to think that the film would fall victim to pacing issues, but there are several extended moments when the film (and, by extension, the main character) seems to lose focus on what’s at stake. In these moments, the audience can’t help but take its cues from the film and breathe a sigh of relief. Certainly, if our protagonist and her children were in any real danger, the film wouldn’t lose that sense of urgency, right?
Along with these narrative issues, the film also stumbles a bit in its thematic explorations. A recurring element in the film is Christian spirituality. A crucifix hangs on the wall of the pantry, which Jessica frequently glances at, seemingly for comfort. She also leafs through her grandmother’s old Bible, not only finding money hidden away in its pages, but also finding inspiring passages meant to help her through her ordeal.
Though these spiritual elements often feel shoehorned into the story, there’s nothing inherently wrong with their inclusion. The real problem is found in the conclusions that we are meant to draw from the film’s version of Christianity. Verses concerning the metaphorical pruning of vines seem to be used to justify the black-and-white, unforgiving, unsympathetic approach the movie takes towards those that would do harm in this world. While it is certainly true that the Bible exhorts us to first protect those that are unable to protect themselves, it also has much to say about the possible redemption of even the darkest souls. This film doesn’t seem particularly interested in the less hardcore aspects of its Biblical inspiration, thus rendering its occasional nods to spirituality little more than perfunctory.
In the end, Shut In is a flawed film that is nonetheless recommendable, primarily for some organically tense moments between engaging characters, well-realized by the performers. Despite occasionally losing the momentum necessary to a thriller, D.J. Caruso mostly sets a consistent tone of desperation that forces the viewer to ask what they might do in the same situation. That kind of empathy isn’t easy to create, but Caruso and his actors manage to pull it off, even if they are sometimes hampered by a thematically-muddled screenplay.