Shelter (2014)

Shelter (2014)
  • Time: 105 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Paul Bettany
  • Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Mackie, Amy Hargreaves


Hannah and Tahir fall in love while homeless on the streets of New York. Shelter explores how they got there, and as we learn about their pasts we realize they need each other to build a future.

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  • “I used to live in a place like this. I used to sleep in a bed like that,” notes Hannah (Jennifer Connelly) in actor Paul Bettany’s directorial debut, Shelter.

    Hannah used to be someone, as her cardboard reads. She used to be married; the death of her husband in Iraq has led her to homelessness and a heroin addiction. Connelly had her career breakthrough as a young woman who descends into addiction and prostitution in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. One can certainly imagine how that film’s young woman could have ended up as Shelter’s sallow-skinned and skeletal protagonist, begging for spare change on the streets of Manhattan. As in Aronofsky’s film, Connelly’s character undergoes several degradations from injecting the heroin directly into her groin for want of a viable vein, to receiving a demeaning facial so she can have somewhere to sleep for the night. Obviously Connelly has complete trust in her director, who also happens to be her husband. Just as evidently, Bettany has no compunction directing his wife through such a series of humiliations.

    Hannah is the film’s central focus though it is Tahir (Anthony Mackie) to whom audiences are introduced at the film’s start. A Nigerian illegal immigrant who drums on buckets to make a few dollars a day, he’s back on the streets after an overnight stint in jail for disorderly conduct. He follows Hannah one night after seeing her wear a jacket that was stolen from him, and observes her from afar the following day. He thwarts her suicide attempt, she’s initially distrustful of his subsequent kindnesses, but they soon form a bond that deepens into something stronger. After an idyll squatting in a luxury rooftop apartment, they are cast back onto the freezing sidewalks, where the below-zero temperatures and lack of secure shelter threaten Tahir’s health and Hannah’s newly sober condition.

    The Panic in Needle Park and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf are obvious touchstones, though Tahir and Hannah’s romance is less credible than Al Pacino and Kitty Winn’s in the former and Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche in the latter. Mackie and Connelly do well enough, but there’s an emotional disconnect in their scenes together. They work well alone, and neither could be accused of being noncommittal in their characterisation. Mackie may have the less showy and lesser written role of the two, but he invests Tahir with a dignity and solidity that renders him a more multi-dimensional character than Bettany crafted on the page. Mackie makes audiences especially understand why he looks to his faith as a means of repentance, not forgiveness.

    Shelter is a solid and competent film, but willfully one-note in its depiction of the grimness, hopelessness and squalor that surround Tahir and Hannah. As such, there’s a predictability that undergirds the proceedings and the entire film becomes an unrelenting march of gloom and doom. There is no doubt that the system will fail Tahir and Hannah, that Hannah will be forced to trade sexual favours for money and safety, that Tahir’s past propensity for violence will be yet another obstacle to the couple’s stability and survival.

    Stylistically, it all is a bit too overwrought. Low angles and shallow focus lend a glossy grittiness to the film, but the flourishes dilute Bettany’s work, which could read as either well-intentioned or a condescending piece of white privilege claptrap. Shelter, by the way, was inspired by and dedicated to the couple who lived outside the Bettanys’ building.

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