An incredible performance by Anthony Mackie can't quite push this debut as far as it wants to go, as it instead ends up being stalled by clunky plotting and a mismatched visual style.
Former disembodied voice and recent Avenger Paul Bettany finally made the jump to the director’s chair a few years ago, premiering Shelter, starring his wife Jennifer Connelly way back in 2014. Now having finally reached British shores, the film seems destined to be forgotten, and understandably so.
Shelter finds homeless Muslim Tahir (Anthony Mackie) attempting to make his way in the world whilst living rough in New York City. An illegal immigrant, Tahir struggles to find work, only finding direction in his life when he meets fellow street-sleeper Hannah (Jennifer Connelly). The two quickly fall in love, tackling their inner-demons of family grief and heroin addiction together.
It’s a fairly dark parable, that for the most part belongs to its two largely exceptional leads; Mackie in particular shines bright here, more than he ever really has before. Usually reduced to comic roles and side-characters, Mackie is finally given a meatier and more emotional role by Bettany, and runs with it brilliantly. His Tahir is not only terrifically underplayed, but also a genuinely warm character who’s incredibly easy to invest in. There’s something very modest and admirable about his performance; in the wrong hands this could’ve been a hammy Oscar-grab, but here, Mackie treats the role with a great deal of respect and honour, never once attempting to milk it for more than its worth.
The same cannot be completely said for Connelly’s Hannah however, despite her struggles as the ex-addict coming across as largely genuine. For the most part Connelly manages to carry her character’s emotional baggage well, but she never quite handles it with the same majesty as Mackie, frequently coming across as rather annoying at times. This isn’t 100% down to Connelly herself though; Bettany is really to blame here due to some seriously mishandled plotting.
Although the central couple’s relationship feels somewhat forced initially anyway, this is not helped at all by a significant time jump part way through, which shifts character focus almost entirely. Whereas it is Mackie’s Tahir who rules the film’s first half – and does so rather beautifully, even if the narrative seems somewhat directionless – Connelly’s Hannah takes the reigns for the rest, never quite reaching the same emotional heights as her partner. Tahir doesn’t disappear completely, but his role is so dramatically reduced that his impact on the film drops sharply, ultimately breaking any real deep connection to its plot.
Similarly, as much as the film’s central morals concerning homelessness feel distinctly honest, Bettany too often contrasts such realism with heavily stylised shots and dream sequences, much like in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. However, whereas in Boyle’s film these moulded together with the more comic sensibilities of the script, here there is no such humour, instead just straight, down-trodden misery, meaning these specific sequences stick out massively and end up dragging the viewer further and further away from engaging with the film emotionally at all.
Bettany’s directorial debut is far from a total train-wreck; there is plenty of genuine feeling here, and a career-high performance from Mackie helps to push this even further. But without a stable plot or steady sense of style, Shelter never quite manages to hit home as hard as it clearly wants to.
Shelter (2014), directed by Paul Bettany, is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray disc by Arrow Films. Certificate 18.