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Entries in Shelter [2015] (1)

Friday
Nov132015

Shelter (2015)

Requiem for Some Change

Paul Bettany is a fine actor and, based on Shelter, his debut as a writer/director, he can look forward to a solid career behind the camera. Like many first films, this one has too many flaws to deem extraordinarily competent or even memorable, but Bettany's passion for the process of making movies, for the subject matter, and for his star/wife is mildly infectious.

Jennifer Connelly stars as Hannah, a heroin addict living on the streets of New York City. She's gaunt, spaced-out, and willing to do anything for a fix or a place to stay. She meets Tahir (Anthony Mackie), an illegal Nigerian immigrant who makes semi-decent money playing bucket drums, and who seeks assistance from a mosque when things get really bad. By resolving an act of violence through an act of justice, these characters form a friendship and then a romance--a love that is tested as fall turns to brutal winter and Tahir gets the kind of sick that requires regular medication, rest, and shelter.

There's a lyricism in Bettany's direction that makes Shelter worth seeing. He obviously adores New York and finds beauty even in its scummiest depths. For much of the picture, we tag along with Hannah and Tahir as they hustle, scavenge, and talk about religion, destiny, their families. This first half of the film is the most engaging, as Bettany and his actors sell the characters' intelligence, pride, and desire to get back to a dignified quality of life that they'd been robbed of. After stealing food from a pack of street vendors, Tahir and Hanna seek refuge in a luxury apartment whose occupants had foolishly left a roof entrance unlocked before leaving for a month-long vacation. In this extended sequence, we learn that Hannah has a son and a father who cares for him in another part of the country. Tahir left his country following the murder of his wife and child--and after joining a terrorist organization that he eventually saw as an imperfect solution to his problems.

Half-way through Shelter, the cracks in Bettany's ambition begin to show. He gives his characters too much back-story and, frankly, too much literal cover. Between the fancy home, the apartment-like shelter they find later, the hospital Tahir goes to for several days, and the boiler room Hannah finds for them later, it feels as though Bettany shies away from grit because he thinks his characters have already suffered enough. Granted, Hannah pays a hefty price for that boiler room spot (I wouldn't blame you for flashing on this as an alternate-reality sequel to Requiem for a Dream), but there are too many beacons here, too many indicators that Shelter isn't really about homelessness, but about Hollywood Homelessness.

As the story winds down, Tahir devolves into Bagger Vance and Hannah inches closer and closer to taking her father up on his offer of a ticket back home. What fantasy. What a tidy slap in the face to everyone for whom there isn't a golden ticket lying in the gutter just beneath their ratty blanket. I don't doubt Bettany's sincerity (after all, the film is dedicated to "the couple that lived outside my building"), but there's an off-putting tone-deafness here--a mainstream need for the privileged white girl to shake off her lost decade and return to the spa for some healing--that undermines the filmmaker's strong, earnest start. I began this synopsis talking about Hannah, but at the outset of Shelter, this is clearly Tahir's story. Consciously or unconsciously, the narrative priorities shift at precisely the moment when we learn of Tahir's remorseful affiliation with Boko Haram and Hannah's ongoing grief at the terrorist-attack death of her military husband.

Shelter is half honest, half contrived, and all sincere. Despite some of the awkward monologues Mackie and Connolly are saddled with, the actors' performances are touching, and may come as a surprise to casual fans who only know them from flashier roles. For his part, Bettany proves that he's been paying attention on film sets instead of just kicking back in his trailer between setups. He invests his soul in the project, and I'll be very interested to see whatever comes next. Hopefully, he'll connect with a writer who can wring emotion from recognizable places, and find a home for his intuitive but unfocused director's eye.