The manufactured grime of Paul Bettany’s directorial debut, Shelter, is often at odds with the film’s well-meaning story of two homeless people struggling to get by in New York City. Virtually every scene is filled with some kind of arty flourish meant to emphasize the squalor in which audiences find the characters, from a low-angle shot of trash-strewn streets to a shallow-focus tableau of a junky getting high. It’s all very beautiful, and as such spurious. The systems that work to displace individuals, mostly minorities, and keep them on the fringes of society go unexamined. Like Bettany’s aesthetic showboating, the characters’ marginalized social standing is less indicative of a real-life epidemic and more akin to window dressing.
Tahir (Anthony Mackie) and Hannah (Jennifer Connelly) meet on the streets of Manhattan just as both have about reached their wit’s end. Their traumatic pasts—Tahir’s life fell apart after an African terrorist group murdered his wife and son, while Hannah lost her military husband in Iraq and developed a heroin addiction—bring them together in a fated romance, and for a time, while holed up in a massive townhouse left empty by an affluent family on a summer-long European vacation, they attempt to heal each other. It’s here that Bettany pursues his more philosophical urges as Tahir and Hannah discuss religion, the universe, and life in general.
These conversations aren’t simply intended to drum up the audience’s empathy for Tahir and Hannah: It isn’t enough that they’re homeless; they’re smart and articulate, which is to say the kind of homeless people the audience can root for. And the condescension picks up as the film trudges along. Summer moves to winter, and Tahir and Hannah are slowly getting it together, but the cold air messes with Tahir’s asthma. He winds up in the hospital, complicating the couple’s financial situation and living arrangement. The public housing they procured stipulates that two people must stay in a unit, and with Tahir incapacitated, Hannah loses her eligibility, and soon she’s back on the streets. At which point the film turns into a series of predictable scenarios in which Hannah searches high and low for money and shelter.
There are heated arguments with indifferent social workers, a teary phone call home asking for more money, and, of course, graphic sex in creepy bathrooms in exchange for a place to stay. This is also where the film’s style transitions from faux-documentary grittiness to prestige-pic glossiness, suggesting there’s no prepackaged style Bettany won’t attempt. There’s also a dubiously precious bit of magical realism in which the characters stumble into a puddle that suddenly becomes as deep as an ocean, providing them the ideal opportunity to swim around and kiss underwater.
In Shelter’s third act, when a soap-operatic climax sends the characters past the point of no return, the central theme—that life on the street is dangerous and miserable, and escaping it requires much embarrassment—emerges as the hill on which Bettany plants his flag. When she panhandles, Hannah holds up a large sign that reads, “I USED TO BE SOMEONE.” The filmmakers surely believe that, despite being homeless, Hannah is in fact someone, but by so intensely aestheticizing her plight, that “someone” becomes an afterthought at best and a means to an end at worst. It’s also the sort of end that, at least in Bettany’s mind, benefits the homeless and non-homeless alike. The film concludes with another telling sign, this one a memorial that precedes the end credits: “For the couple who lived outside my building.” A thoughtful gesture, or a self-congratulatory way of saying, “You’re welcome”?