Film Review: ‘Shelter’

'Shelter' Review: Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Mackie

Actor Paul Bettany debuts as writer-director with this uneven, sometimes admirable tale of homelessness on the streets of New York.

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.

Film Review: 'Shelter'

Reviewed at TIFF (Special Presentations), Sept. 6, 2014. Running time: 105 MIN.


A BiFrost Pictures presentation of a Recidivist production in association with Bridge Finance Co. (International sales: Repeat Offender Prods., New York.) Produced by Robert Ogden Barnum, Katie Mustard, Daniel Wagner, Paul Bettany. Executive producers, Clay Floren, Aimee Shieh, Melanie Greene, Dana Brown, Kevin Fraker, Cassian Elwes.


Directed, written by Paul Bettany. Camera (color, HD), Paula Huidobro; editor, John F. Lyons; music, James Lavelle; music supervisors, Jen Malone, Marc Ferrari; production designer, Tania Bijlani; costume designer, Emma Potter; art director, Raphael Sorcio; set decorator, Marina Parker; sound, Michael Sterkin; supervising sound editor, Louis Bertini; re-recording mixer, Daniel Brennan; assistant director, Eric Berkal; casting, Avy Kaufman.


Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Mackie, Amy Hargreaves, Scott Johnsen, Alok Tewari, Andrew Polk, Rob Morgan, Paul Urcioli, Kevin Geer.

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  1. Evee says:

    Does anyone know who the “real life” woman was that the movie was mostly about? According to the movie she went home to her parents home.

    At the end of the movie it reads “This film is dedicated to the couple who lived outside of my building”.

  2. Candace Pfau says:

    I loved this movie. I feel so sad every time I see a homeless person. In our country it should not even be.

  3. Pat says:

    Loved this movie. Even better second viewing. Not too ‘cerebral’. Does require an attention span greater than an amoeba.

  4. Richard says:

    Just saw the film at the DIFF and thought Connelly was amazing. Too many bells and whistles packed into the script – I think it was an attempt to make it “timeless” by including a bit of everything from different eras: homelessness, addiction, sexual assault, the beaten-down New York of the 70s, the immigrant crisis, 9/11, etc. The occasional over-pretty images seemed to urge the audience to suspend disbelief for some elements of the film. Still, Connelly’s performance, taken on its own high merits, holds the film together for me. No doubt, she got a better paycheck for “Hulk,” which is depressing as this film is at times. Of course, the Golden Globes totally overlooked her work in this too-grim film and instead chose peppy Reese Witherspoon in more politically correct “Wild.”

  5. N. says:

    Saw the movie at the festival. It’s not perfect, there are editing flaws, some of the soundtrack didn’t fit (I liked it overall though) and I’d have preferred a bit more pacing and gradualness especially when the two first met. If there was about 10 more minutes of them dealing with each other as strangers I think the movie would’ve felt tighter.

    The ending could’ve used more work too.

    Saying all that, for all the flaws I still loved it. The two are homeless, the movie neither defends them for that nor condemns it. They’re simply shown as that as is, and as a viewer you accept it. The movie shows their humanity. At first, they seem merely as two homeless people, the dialogue seems deliberately light in words more in facial expressions. As the movie proceeds, they speak more and slowly you get a feel for the characters. For all what it is, the characters feel real as you go on.

    However, Jennifer Connelly’s character is more fleshed out and I think the actress is utterly brilliant in this. She’s effortless and exhibits so much with her wordless emotions without once appearing like she’s over-acting. It’s early but I’d love to see her to get nominated this awards season.

    I really liked the movie. Not perfect but when you like something enough to ignore the flaws what can you say?

    Btw I wouldn’t say the lives overlapped, as that his past was dark but in a completely different corner of the world.

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