MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Shelter’ Is Captivating And Depressing In Equal Measure

Film: Shelter
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Connelly
Directed by: Paul Bettany

Paul Bettany’s first feature behind the camera, Shelter, is without a doubt one of 2015’s most depressing new films. It’s a heartbreaking look at life on the streets and the relationships shared by those who have no place to call home, as well as that gnawing feeling we all experience from time to time that claims we don’t know those closest to us as well as we think we do.

Tahir (Anthony Mackie) is a Nigerian immigrant living on the streets of New York City. His visa has long expired, making him unable to find work, but for reasons that remain undisclosed early on he cannot return home. Even if he could, he probably wouldn’t want to, as he views his life in America as something of a second chapter. His living situation might not be ideal, but he still finds reasons to appreciate every breath he is given.

One day, Tahir crosses paths with Hannah (Jennifer Connelly), a homeless woman with a dependency on heroin that might as well be a noose around her neck. Hannah lives each day hoping to scrape together enough cash to get high once more, and with each injection she falls deeper in love with her addiction. She doesn’t seem to care if she lives or dies, but for whatever reason Tahir takes an interest in her, and even attempts to be her friend. Hannah is understandably hesitant at first, but in time she decides to let Tahir into her life. They don’t fall in love, or at least not in the way you might expect. Instead, they rely on one another for protection, both from others on the streets and the world at large.

As their connection begins to develop, Tahir and Hannah slowly begin to learn what events led each of them to their current life on the streets. Tahir is the most forthcoming, sharing a tragic past that found him roped into a war he did not believe in where he carried out tasks far too horrific to repeat here. He feels his time on the streets is something of a karmic response to the pain and suffering he has inflicted on others, which he accepts. He knows he was in the wrong, even if it was not a place he necessarily chose to put himself, and he’s lived most of his life filled with regret. Hannah, on the other hand, has secrets. Some big, some small, but each reveal a person who seems far removed from the drug-addled shell of a human present in front of Tahir. As more is revealed, the disconnect between the new acquaintances grows, but ultimately they realize they still need one another if they are to have any hope for a better life moving forward.

Bettany is mostly known in Hollywood as an action star, having led films like Priest and Legion, not to mention having officially joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2015’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron, which makes the material in Shelter quite baffling at times. This is a story so far removed from everything the actor has done previously, not to mention the work of star Anthony Mackie, that you have absolutely no idea what to expect from beginning to end. This is a good thing, as it keeps you glued to the screen even when the dialogue feels a bit stale, but it’s also exhausting as every single turn seems to only make matters worse for the film’s lead characters. There is not a single uplifting frame in the first hour of the movie. In fact, if not for a few final beats at the tail end of the third act there would be no upswing in mood at all, and even those moments come as a result of something incredibly bleak. To say this is the opposite of a feel-good movie would be an understatement.

Still, Shelter commands your attention, and a lot of that is owed to the onscreen chemistry between Mackie and Connelly. Their characters are deeply realized, thanks in part to the fact there are few supporting characters and essentially no subplots, and each actor is given ample time to bring their fictional identity to life. Mackie has the easier job in this respect, as Tahir is a man who is willing to admit his mistakes, but he still finds a way to make his character’s arc one you can’t turn away from. Connelly, on the other hand, bares all in more ways than one to bring Hannah to life. Her need to feed her addiction is the motivation between almost every decision she makes, and when she tries to change that fact about herself she is presented with a wide array of demons that she has long tried to deny. Again, it’s all incredibly depressing stuff, but it’s presented in such a way you won’t want to look away.

I honestly don’t know if a target demographic exists for films like Shelter. It’s a downer of a movie that boasts likable stars delivering commendable performances that feature them doing things no one ever thought they would do in a narrative that doesn’t offer a moment of hope. That said, the first feature from Paul Bettany is sure to linger in the mind and heart of anyone brave enough to watch it, and that is more than you can say for the vast majority of dramas released today. Come for the star power, stay for the heartache, but don’t be surprised if you feel like lying in bed for several weeks questioning why pain and suffering must exist after the credits roll. You’ve been warned.


James Shotwell
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