Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie play very different unfortunates who find each other on the streets of New York in “Shelter,” the writing-directing debut of Connelly’s actor spouse, Paul Bettany. The latter fares better behind the camera than he does wielding the pen, as his sometimes over-stylized helming nonetheless renders mostly credible a somewhat overloaded screenplay. Homelessness, addiction, terrorism, immigration issues and more clutter the earnest thematic agenda in a sometimes accomplished but uneven pic that could have partaken more of the virtue of simplicity. Home-format prospects look stronger than iffy theatrical ones.
Tahir (Mackie) is a Nigerian immigrant who survives by busking on his plastic-bucket drums. His visa has expired, but he’s not considered a “deportation priority.” Upon release after a minor arrest, he finds all his belongings have been stolen, and he initially follows junkie Hannah (Connelly) because he realizes she’s wearing his purloined jacket. But his gentlemanly behavior persuades her into a wary trust that turns into a kind of mutually beneficial partnership, then romance. Chance lands them in a luxury townhouse whose vacationing owners carelessly left an entrance unlocked; in this relatively safe setting, Hannah decides she’s ready to go cold turkey.
Despite a major hiccup caused by the two discovering their painful pasts overlap in a rather too whoppingly ironic way, the film’s later sections find their lives beginning to stabilize together. But a medical crisis throws that progress into peril. Worse, it’s now winter, and going back onto the street is a much more serious matter when the temperatures are below freezing.
The hard-working lead actors and well-cast if mostly brief supporting roles (the largest being Kevin Geer’s as a doorman whose Good Samaritanism comes with a demeaning price tag) ballast a narrative that might easily have seemed overpacked with melodramatic travails. So does Bettany’s direction, which maintains a tight, empathetic focus despite occasional stumbles in soundtrack choice and other stylistic fillips.
While Bettany says he was inspired by gritty ’70s New York dramas, “Shelter” is quite different from the likes of “The Panic in Needle Park” and the like, which were less catch-all in terms of social issues and more straightforward in presentation. Instead, the tetherless uncertainties of homelessness are evoked to sometimes almost dreamlike effect in Paula Huidobro’s handheld lensing, John F. Lyons’ sometimes too-busy editing, and a highly worked sound design. (The extent to which these elements felt borderline excessive at moments might partly be attributed to the Toronto press screening attended, where the pic was shown less-than-ideally on an Imax screen.)
The results are admirable in intent and sporadic effect, but still a mixed bag overall. Further, given “Shelter’s” tough subject matter, critical support will be spotty and commercial sales an uphill struggle. Nevertheless, the pic’s virtues are enough to make one hope this isn’t a directorial one-shot for Bettany. It’s dedicated to a homeless man who long camped out in front of the creative couple’s Manhattan building, and hasn’t been seen since Hurricane Sandy evacuated their Hudson River-front neighborhood.