'Shelter': Toronto Review

Shelter Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Shelter Still - H 2014

Raw homelessness drama isn't the usual awards-bait social message film

Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie are a homeless couple in Paul Bettany's directing debut

TORONTO — A story of love and survival set in places where the homeless seek refuge in New York City, Shelter throws Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie together as two very different kinds of people who come to rely on each other. The directing debut of Connelly's husband, actor Paul Bettany, the picture will sound to jaded observers like a project designed to win the actress another Oscar, especially after one hears how she has transformed her body physically, in the manner of so many awardees before her. But Shelter plays like something more sincere, an empathetic if imperfect attempt to imagine life on the streets and find a specific story there. Two thoroughly convincing performances carry the film, which despite some truly rough images will play well with audiences looking for serious fare.

Mackie's Tahir is a Nigerian who has overstayed his visa in the States and drums on plastic buckets to make a few dollars each day; Hannah (Connelly) is a heroin addict so sketchy and emaciated it's hard to guess what kind of community she has dropped out of. Tahir stalks her on the street one day because he sees she's wearing a jacket that was stolen from him. Soon he's interrupting her suicide attempt, bringing her back to the alley-like spot in which he feels most safe. A few shots of their next few days draw some pretty schematic contrasts between them: Where she's distrustful, a mess, and always looking for a fix, he's judicious with the things he can scrounge, is as clean as possible under the circumstances, and behaves as if there were a god watching over him.

As the two open up to each other, Hannah interrogates Tahir's Muslim faith, but despite their differences they begin to become a team. One day they stumble across an open door, and find themselves ensconced for weeks in a luxury rooftop apartment. There he cares for her as she quits heroin, each learns upsetting secrets about the other, and their existence as a couple becomes something more solid than an of-necessity survival pact. Once they're cast from this Eden, each will sacrifice more to protect the other than most married couples in the comfortable world would probably be able to consider.

Bettany has acknowledged his desire to make a film like the gritty, performance-friendly '70s cinema that inspired him, and it's not idle talk. Panic in Needle Park is an obvious reference point here, both in the film's interest in the petty mechanics required just to stay alive another day (shuttling from one shelter to another, dealing with curfews and paperwork) and in the frank treatment of transactions that are gut-wrenching instead of petty. Viewers who are worried they might not be able to stomach the sight of Connelly as a junkie — so skinny that veins and her sternum leap from her chest in relief; her skin corpselike; putting a needle into her groin because every other spot is ruined — should be warned that it gets worse for her after the drugs. One humiliating shot in particular, in a scene where she's forced to trade sexual favors for safety, is guaranteed to stick with audiences, whether they talk about it afterward or not.

Though the screenplay leaves itself open to complaints that his character fills that familiar role of the black man sent to care for a white beauty who deserves to return to privilege, Mackie has dignity and conviction here; the character is real despite being very lightly sketched on the page. Bettany tries to make up for this thinness at the end: He gives Tahir a poetic monologue almost out of nowhere, in a more sentimental sequence than most of those raw '70s films would have tolerated. It's as if the 1940s melodramas referenced with a mid-film glimpse of Brief Encounter have snuck into his playbook. But the picture survives its inconsistencies of taste.

With DP Paula Huidobro, Bettany creates a very effective look for the film, with frames so tight they fit characters who can barely see past where they'll sleep tonight.



Production companies: BiFrost Pictures, Repeat Offender Productions, Inc.

Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Mackie, Amy Hargreaves, Scott Johnsen, Bruce Altman

Director-Screenwriter: Paul Bettany

Producers: Robert Ogden Barnum, Paul Bettany, Katie Mustard, Daniel Wagner

Executive producers: Dana Brown, Cassian Elwes, Clay Floren, Kevin Scott Frakes, Melanie Greene

Director of photography: Paula Huidobro

Production designer: Tania Bijlani

Costume designer: Emma Potter

Editor: John F. Lyons

Sales: Cassian Elwes, UTA


No rating, 105 minutes