Paul Bettany deserves praise for at least trying to make a socially conscious film that depicts just how truly desperate and cataclysmic homelessness is. Shelter is dedicated to “the couple who lived outside” Bettany’s building, and clearly the actor was so affected by seeing them on a regular basis that he was inspired to make his writing and directing debut. But instead of Paul Bettany using these individuals to bring their cinematic equivalents to life in a nuanced, unique fashion, Anthony Mackie and Jennifer Connelly’s Hannah and Tahir are painstakingly banal and hackneyed homeless characters.
Hannah is a damaged, clearly intelligent, heroin addict, while Tahir is a talented, kind-hearted but when provoked overly aggressive illegal immigrant. After being released from a night in prison, Tahir ends up stalking the suicidal Hannah in order to retrieve the jacket she stole from him during his brief incarceration. Tahir then takes it upon himself to try and assist Hannah in her recovery, and soon the pair develop an intimate bond.
Unfortunately, Paul Bettany relies way too much on his actors to carry Shelter through its laborious opening act. While there are flashes of impressive direction – especially in his use of location – Bettany’s woefully underwritten script almost immediately dogs Shelter down.
By the end of its opening 30 minutes, you’ll feel as though Shelter has played every card at its disposal, as it aimlessly plods along under a “day in the life” template. Rather than being able to picture how it will blossom over the course of its feature length running time, you’ll instead surmise that Bettany would have probably been better off making it as a short.
Things stagnate even further when Hannah and Tahir find a rather top-notch abode to rest in for a prolonged period, which gives them time to unveil their extravagantly depressing back stories that just come across as a cheap attempt to entice viewers. However, just when all looks lost with Shelter, a brief flash-forward and change of season injects some much needed authentic, raw drama into proceedings. Now in the freezing winter, things suddenly get much more drastic and depressing for Hannah and Tahir.
And while the characters struggle immensely to survive in these bleak conditions, the addition of genuine desperation, tension and peril for the pair gives the film a structure that it benefits from. This in turn allows Bettany to mix nice little touches of characterization with the plot, and suddenly Shelter becomes bearable to watch.
However, despite this improvement, it never jolts into anything remotely substantial. And while Anthony Mackie and Jennifer Connolly’s performances are dogged and venerable there’s ultimately not enough there for the pair to make them even slightly memorable.
Paul Bettany still deserves a hearty, slightly condescending pat on the back for at least attempting Shelter. It’s just a shame, though, that he lacked the cinematic wherewithal to actually match his virtuous ambition.