Take a Drink: each time Jennifer Connelly seems unstable
Take a Drink: for each time Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie are denied a place to stay because “that’s just how it is”
Take a Drink: each time a character behaves unrealistically, or shares information about themselves that seems unlikely
By: Abby Olcese (Five Beers) –
One of the reasons I love cinema is its ability to communicate social truths. Movies give us the chance to encounter and feel sympathy for people we’ve never met, with lives and experiences and struggles that may be nothing like our own. When movies communicate social messages through compelling stories or intelligent art, it’s truly something to behold.
The reaction you’re going for… but more profound.
When a movie is artless, clumsy, and emotionally manipulative, however, the result can be a colossal waste of an artist’s talent and a viewer’s time. This is, unfortunately, the case with Shelter, a depressing, overlong slog of a film.
Shelter tells the story of Tahir (Anthony Mackie) and Hannah (Jennifer Connelly), a homeless couple. Tahir is a Nigerian immigrant with a guilt-filled past. Hannah is a recovering heroin addict from a wealthy family, who turned to addiction after the death of her husband. After meeting, they strike up a romantic relationship cemented when they spend a week squatting in the house of a rich family.
The film then skips ahead a few months, showing Hannah trying to care for Tahir, who’s in poor health. Things go from bad, to worse, to even worse, as the couple searches for a place to stay in a frigid New York winter.
Spoiler: Turns out New York in the Winter is nothing like Elf.
In 105 minutes, Shelter manages to cram in a boatload of different plots. The first half of of the film alone contains Tahir meeting Hannah, their life on the street together, Hannah’s debates with Tahir about the existence of God, their luxury squatting experience, and the flowering of their relationship. Any one of these would make a great shorter film by itself, or perhaps an interesting film together, if it made up the whole running time.
Instead, plot points go rushing by without establishing much about the characters themselves. We eventually learn Hannah and Tahir’s backstories, but they’re introduced much later than they should be, especially given how quickly their relationship takes hold. The characters trust each other without having any reason to, which doesn’t make sense.
The film’s second half might also make a decent film on its own, at least in theory, calling to mind films like Modern Times in its setup (a down-and-out couple trying to make things work), or The Visitor in its situation (Tahir is an illegal immigrant).
But not only is the second half of Shelter overloaded, it’s overloaded with depressing thing after depressing thing, with no sense of hope, no break from the pain.
For real, though.
Which brings us to the next problem: at no point is Shelter clear about what it’s trying to communicate, or why writer-director Paul Bettany puts his characters through such tragic circumstances. Is he making a statement about the plight of homeless people? The immigration system? The difficulty of addiction and recovery? To tackle one of these topics would be enough, but instead Shelter goes for all of them, without making a point about any of them other than “man, (insert topic here) is awful.”
Sorry about the homeless epidemic! Sure sucks, I guess.
It’s bad enough that Shelter suffers from poor writing, flat characters and a borderline-sadistic story. It’s also badly shot, with a dark filter that makes it hard to tell what’s going on in some scenes, and overall adds to the relentlessly oppressive atmosphere of the film.
The end of Shelter dedicates the film to the homeless couple that lived outside of Bettany’s building. It’s infuriating, not only because it stirs up unearned sympathies, but because it dedicates a piece of bad art to people who deserve better (I hope that Bettany did something more substantive for the real-life couple than making a terrible film in their honor). Shelter may mean well, but its poor execution wastes the ability of everyone involved.