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As Paul Bettany's directorial debut, Shelter misses the head but hits the heart thanks to the solid performance of real life spouse Jennifer Connelly.
What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of New York? A vibrant cityscape? Glitz and glam? Written, produced and directed by Paul Bettany, Shelter is a bleak reminder that even the greatest cities in the world can be extremely unforgiving if time and destiny dictates it.
So it is with Tahir (Anthony Mackie), a Nigerian Muslim with an expired visa, and Hannah (Jennifer Connelly), a suicidal heroin junkie. As an illegal immigrant, Tahir cannot seek communal shelter so makes do by scavenging through trash and busking on plastic buckets. When they meet and eventually fall in love, we learn that one is the victim of circumstance and the other by choice. They have different beliefs owing to different backgrounds but they find dependence and strength in each other. He will get her through her drug addiction and reconciled with her estranged family. She will become the only source of redemption for his violent past. Through drip-fed sympathy we feel their anguish, and just when we think it can't get any worse, Bettany settles for none less than a grim ending, but not before forcing Hannah and Tahir through increasingly stomach churning situations.
Shelter could have been set in any city but Bettany's story is juxtaposed between New York's opulence and rock bottom poverty. In some ways it is dedicated to the couple who lived outside their Manhattan residence but in many ways it is an eye opening account of a worst case scenario that could befall anyone. It's a dark shade of New York (or any other first world city) we either don't see or choose not to, and that's all the more reason why this story had to be told. But in doing so, Bettany's approach is depressing, repulsive and even melodramatic. If such is the intended effect, Shelter has a lot of it and that's largely due to Connelly's solid performance in portraying the plight of a woman who has nothing left, and because she has nothing left, will do anything to survive. Connelly also looks the part, with bones and veins sticking out of what looks like a malnourished frame. On the other hand, Mackie is either miscast or isn't given much to work with. Besides his faltering Nigerian accent, I can't imagine how his character is so well built for a hungry hobo; unless of course, the physique he has in this film is a fundamental requirement that runs alongside his characters in Marvel superhero films.
While there are other questions that go unanswered, including debatable motives from certain characters, a lot of energy is focused on the pathetic situation of a homeless individual. There's no doubt that this is the real world and that poverty can be as devastating as cancer. But even while Bettany's subject matter is loud and clear, his application of Murphy's Law gives away towards a predictable ending with even more melodrama. Overall, you could call it a sophomore effort but there is also every reason to believe that this isn't a directorial attempt for the heck of it. As a first attempt for an actor-turned-director, Bettany gives us a powerful film that hits the heart despite aiming for the head. I sincerely hope there's more where this came from.
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