Over the course of 2015 (with 2014 film festivals counting as well), there’s been a sudden boom in movies depicting life on the streets of New York City. On heels of Heaven Knows What as well as Time Out of Mind now comes Shelter, which can’t stand up to those powerful films. The writing and directing debut of actor Paul Bettany, this melodrama is well acted but ultimately feels more like an exercise than anything seeking a level of realism. You can tell that Bettany has his heart in the right place and feels like this flick can make a difference, but he succumbs to just depicting indignity after indignity without ever making it compelling. It’s almost as if he took every single story of homelessness that he’d heard and crafted them into Shelter. Casting the duo of Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie in the central roles was a terrific choice by Bettany, but he just doesn’t give either of them nearly enough to do. I’m all for down and dirty tales like this one, but I do wish that Bettany had taken his obvious filmmaking talents and concentrated them on a better story. Connelly and Mackie do what they can, but the end result is still simply that Shelter is a small scale misfire, filled with first time director glitches (one plot point in particular sticks out like a sore thumb). Maybe next time for Bettany…
The film is a look at two individuals who are living their lives out on the streets of the Big Apple. Tahir (Mackie) is an illegal immigrant from Nigeria just out of Central Booking when we meet him. He finds his things missing from the alley he usually stays in, leading to him wandering around, busking on occasion with makeshift drums in order to try and get something to eat. Quickly though, Hannah (Connelly) catches his eye, and he begins following her. She notices and is none too pleased, though necessity leads them to begin spending time together. She’s a heroin addict and a panhandler, but Tahir becomes determined to protect and care for her as much as possible. At times, the roles reverse, especially when he becomes sick and she works to kick her drug habit. They know very little about each other, but the arrival of a man (Bruce Altman) looking for Hannah opens them up to learning about how each of them got on to the street. They fight on, looking for a tiny bit of happiness, but is that out of reach for the pair? Shelter has an answer to that, but again, it won’t be nearly as satisfying as in Heaven Knows What or Time Out of Mind.
One thing you can’t take away from Shelter is the strong acting on display from Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie. The former is as good as she’s been in a long time, while the latter is his reliably strong self. It’s just a shame that the script shortchanges them as much as it does. Connelly is reduced to being put through the wringer as much as possible, often without necessary, and Mackie consistently has his character silenced, in multiple ways. They have solid chemistry together, but in many instances, they’re at their best when apart. It’s really all about them here too, as Bruce Altman basically cameos, with small parts also being given to Kevin Geer, Scott Johnsen, and Alok Tewari, among others, but again…it’s the Connelly and Mackie show. They don’t disappoint in this, even if the material often does. It’s a shame too, as the potential for these roles was fairly immense.
As a writer/director, Paul Bettany is unquestionably a better director than he is a writer. The look of Shelter is fairly strong, with cinematographer Paula Huidobro doing admirable work. The pacing is pretty hit or miss, but it’s helped out somewhat by crisp editing. Bettany can definitely direct, it’s just his writing that isn’t ready for primetime just yet. In particular is one scene where Hannah and Tahir reveal their pasts, which feels 100% like w screenwriting construct and even somewhat betrays both characters. Bettany gives his cast room to explore a bit, but he could have given them more room. The final card before the credits make it clear this is personal to the actor turned filmmaker, but his ambition exceeds his abilities here.
Overall, Shelter isn’t a particularly bad film, but it’s a flawed and unfocused one that could have used a polish on its screenplay. Especially in the shadows of Heaven Knows What and Time Out of Mind, the shortcomings are all the more glaring. You could definitely do worse than this one in terms of your indie cinema choices, but you can do much better as well. Shelter announces Bettany as a multi-hyphenate to watch out for, but he’s not a complete filmmaker just yet.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!