We gave it a C
Like Richard Gere’s Time Out of Mind a couple of months ago, Shelter is a sucker-punch drama about New York’s homeless that explores the problem from the perspective of those living on the streets as they huddle from the elements and scramble to survive day-to-day in tragic anonymity. The movie, directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Paul Bettany, is made with sympathy and compassion. Its intentions are noble. Its gaze is harshly realistic. But it’s also overly melodramatic. Bettany has the makings of better director than screenwriter.
Bettany’s off-screen wife, Jennifer Connelly, plays Hannah–an unlikely sort of woman to be scrounging for change and searching for her next meal (then again, one of the messages of the movie is that homelessness doesn’t discriminate). As the film goes on, her circumstances begin to come into focus. Her soldier husband was killed in an act of terrorism overseas and she lost all hope, developing a drug habit that severed her relationship with her child. On the streets, she meets Anthony Mackie’s Tahir, a Nigerian immigrant who fled to America after unspeakable horrors back in his homeland. His lack of papers and legal status have allowed him to slip through a system designed to help people like him–one of the film’s many cruel ironies. Together, these two doomed, forgotten people form a bond (first platonic, then romantic). In the margins, there is strength in numbers. They are each other’s shelter. But their friendship is too metaphorically loaded to be entirely believable.
Bettany seems to take an almost sadistic delight in putting its main characters through the wringer of misery and exploitation (Connelly, in particular, is subject to degradations that will remind audiences of 2000’s Requiem for a Dream). The film doesn’t ask for your heart—it holds it hostage at gunpoint. The fact that there are literally tens of thousands of homeless people living in one of the wealthiest cities in the world is a tragedy. But each of them has their own individual tale of woe. The problem with Bettany’s overwrought script is that he’s saddled his pair of down-and-out protagonists with all of this population’s misfortunes. In the end, it’s too heavy a burden for two isolated souls–or even two dozen–to bear. C