What Shut Off manages to convey extraordinarily well is the abject sense of dread that Christian faces in this circumstance. Each time he receives a note from the hotel, it marks another threat level that must be considered. Director Elliott makes the brilliant choice never to reveal who is slipping the messages underneath Christian’s door, even though after each knock, Christian peers down the hallway in an attempt to identify some human source of the directives.
This anonymity of the messenger is the film’s most effective touch. By keeping the envoy hidden, the movie underscores the elusiveness of the illness. The messages appear without warning and magnify in intensity, much like COVID-19 itself: a faceless enemy delivering urgent and portentous news to the individual. No matter how many times Christian hopes to find someone from whom he can seek answers, he fails. All he manages to receive are frightening instructions devoid of context, paralleling the initial alarm raised from the media regarding COVID-19.
“…makes the brilliant choice never to reveal who is slipping the messages underneath Christian’s door…”
The filmmakers’ choice to set the film in Wuhan at the initial stages of the outbreak is smart. There was so little dependable information being disseminated during this period that when Isabel asks Christian how he is holding up, he isn’t able to answer her with confidence. All Christian is able to do reliably is sit and await his fate. Lei’s blank, expressionless acting is acutely appropriate to the material. How is Christian supposed to act when he is provided no impulse other than confusion and ambiguity?
Even if Shut Off didn’t depict such an of-the-moment scenario, it would still be an unsettling film. What can one do when he or she is trapped in a cloud of uncertainty, especially if there is no means of obtaining clarity? When does one’s sense of mortality move to the forefront? When there are no clear answers and no concrete information, all one can do is sit and wait and worry. Maybe the chaos will subside. Maybe not.
"…the movie underscores the elusiveness of the illness."