Paul Bettany’s Directorial Debut “Shelter”

Anthony Mackie and Jennifer Connelly star in "Shelter," the directorial debut of Paul Bettany. Peter Travers of the New York Film Critics Series. November 9, 2015.
Anthony Mackie and Jennifer Connelly star in “Shelter,” a film written and directed by Paul Bettany. Peter Travers of the New York Film Critics Series preps to interview the cast and director. November 9, 2015.

Paul Bettany (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Priest,” “Legion”) makes his directorial debut with the film “Shelter.”

Bettany was inspired to write the film about a homeless couple in Manhattan, taking inspiration from a couple he used to see everyday near his home in Manhattan.  Every morning, as he was taking the kids to school, he’d come upon this couple.  Every day they exchanged pleasantries, a nice hello, before heading on their separate ways.

After Hurricane Sandy hit, he noticed they were gone.  He never saw them again.  He always wondered what happened to them.

It was that interracial couple living on the streets that inspired him to dive into the homeless culture and create a story that could have been their tale.

His wife, Jennifer Connelly (Oscar Award winning actress for “A Beautiful Mind”), was cast in the lead role.  Anthony Mackie (“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “8 Mile,” “The Night Before”) plays opposite of her leading role.  Together, they tell the imagined tale of what could have happened to that couple that Bettany saw outside of his building.

This film dives deeply into the world of homelessness as we follow Tahir, a Nigerian refugee (and former terrorist) with no papers living on the streets.  He is trying to find some sort of redemption for the egregious sins he had committed in his lifetime.

He stumbles upon Hannah, a heroin addict, living on the streets.  She just so happens to be wearing his jacket that was stolen with the rest of his things while he was in lockup.  He follows her around all day before she confronts him for following her.  She gives him back his jacket, but he still refuses to leave her.  He knows why she is on that overpass.

The only reason why anyone goes up there is if they want to kill themselves.  She tries to climb over the fence, but he holds her back.

That is when his redemption begins.  He hopes that if he can save her, then he’ll be able to get into heaven to see his family again.

We follow the two as they get to know each other and eventually fall in love.  We see what they do to try and earn some money on the streets.  We watch as they go through garbage bins looking for food, clothes, boots, and anything they can use to survive living on the streets.  We watch how they survive living with only the things they can carry on their backs.

Bettany wants us to see and experience what the homeless go through on the streets of Manhattan.  We watch as their story takes a turn for the worst when the weather changes.  What they do in order to survive the winter, including the blizzard outside when all of the shelters and housing has turned them away, sheds light on the horrors that occur.  People take advantage of those in their most vulnerable states.  Hannah’s dignity is completely stripped away to nothing in her desperation to find someplace out of the blizzard.  A good Samaritan isn’t such a good Samaritan when he demands another form of payment for his kindness.

A wrench is thrown into the mix when Tahir becomes sick.  He knows he’s dying, so his interest becomes solely on Hannah’s safety.  He starts encouraging her to go home to her family.  They’re looking for her.  She refuses to go without him.

The message in this story of Tahir and Hannah is to take a closer look at the homeless around us and to not judge them for their failures.  Yes, there are some who are con artists pretending to be homeless and make more money than the person giving them that dollar, but then there are the real homeless people out there that we shouldn’t ignore.  Some only need just a chance to get themselves off the streets.  For some cities, they need better resources to help people.

“The film is about judgment, not about homelessness,” Bettany told Peter Travers of the New York Film Critics.  “I didn’t want to make a film about homelessness being bad or drug addiction being bad or how anybody deemed with those two situations are either criminals or victims.  I just wanted to understand the predicament a little bit more.  That’s all I wanted to do.”

“The responses to homelessness are a myriad.  One of them is ignoring, and the people being invisible.  Another one is some downright aggression which has to be borne out of fear.  ‘It couldn’t happen to me because I’m different from you.  You must have done something to bring yourself that low, because it will never happen to me.’  Well, explain to me why there are so many homeless veterans?  Those are men with medals.”

“Last year in New York we passed two milestones.  An apartment sold for $100 million.  Extraordinary, really.  Even more extraordinary though, 60,000 of New York City’s citizens sought shelter in the New York City shelter system every night.  4,000 of them were children.  19,000 of them are women.  Half of New York City’s homeless population are families, and all of that is going on in a town that holds more billionaires than any other city on earth.”

“Over the last ten years, we have lost 32% of public housing.”

Anthony Mackie and Paul Bettany. November 9, 2015.
Anthony Mackie and Paul Bettany. November 9, 2015.

The question of how they got to be that way isn’t because they chose to be that way.  Nobody chooses to be homeless and destitute.  As Anthony Mackie said, we are all just one second away from being homeless ourselves.  Anything can happen in our lives that can cause us to end up on the streets.  For Tahir, he was escaping a past in another country.  He was a refugee.  For Hannah, her husband died.  She didn’t know how to live without him, or how to take care of herself.  She was heartbroken and grieving.  She started taking heroin to numb the pain she was feeling inside.

There are families living on the streets.  People across America are finding it harder and harder to find stable work, especially in places where manufacturing companies closed their doors (see Detroit).  Even in NYC, 98% of the garment manufacturing companies closed shop over these last few years.  Public housing is becoming fewer and fewer as the number on the streets steadily climbs.

The important thing to note here is that people don’t choose to be destitute and poor.  They don’t do this because they want a free handout.  When you tell a bum to “Get a job,” you don’t know how many times he’s tried only to have the door slammed in his face again and again.  They get to the point where they give up.  It’s like the veterans out on the streets.  We sent these kids out to fight our wars, but when they came back, we gave up on them.  They couldn’t get a job because they were considered risky (due to PTSD).

Look at the job market where manufacturing companies that could have employed people back from the war, refugees, or even the homeless…those manufacturing companies were forced to close their doors one shop at a time.  The jobs went overseas.  American companies that want Made in the USA products are being forced to send their manufacturing jobs overseas because those manufacturing companies don’t exist on American soil anymore.  They don’t want to do it, but they have no choice because the manufacturers are gone.

Say you worked in a manufacturing company and they were forced to close their doors.  It was the only place that employed an entire town.  What do you do when everyone in town loses their source of income?  Pick up the family and move? To where?  Where do you take them?  If almost all of those manufacturing companies are closing their doors, and that’s where your skill set is, what are you going to do for money?

This is the reality of the homeless situation across America.  People don’t choose to be destitute.  The circumstances surrounding them forces them into this predicament.  It beats them down until they have no choice but to live on the streets.  If Americans were always picking up the bill for those living on welfare, keep in mind all of those that did not qualify for welfare.  Where are they?  They’re the ones in line for the non-profit food trucks carrying food for the homeless.  They’re the ones at their local churches asking for some clothes to wear.  They’re digging through the trash looking for a pair of shoes.  They’re the ones standing in line at the shelter when the weather gets too cold hoping to get a warm bed so they don’t have to sleep out in the storm.  These people are the forgotten.

“Shelter” doesn’t just dive into that dark place of homelessness with no redemption.  It has its own Hollywood ending.  Elements from Connelly’s work in “Requiem for a Dream” comes to light.  It was one of the first films that gave people the opportunity to see that she was a force to be reckoned with as being a superior actress.  It divorced us from that young girl in “Labyrinth.”  This is what that young girl grew up to be…an outstanding actress that would win her own Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “A Beautiful Mind” (where she met her husband, Bettany).

Jennifer Connelly. November 9, 2015.
Jennifer Connelly. November 9, 2015.

While people may reminisce of how this film reminds us of her role in Requiem, you can also see how her husband pushes her to a whole different level of humanity in her acting.  There was one scene in the film that appears to be difficult for Bettany to stomach, even as the director.  As a husband, he had difficulties with one particular scene in the film where Hannah is completely degraded, humiliated and all dignity stripped from her.  While he was trying to shed light that this is what happens to women on the streets, it also shows the strength in the woman playing Hannah.  To see your wife be stripped of all dignity in that one moment, you can understand why Bettany has difficulties with the scene.  He tried to protect her all throughout the film.  It was as if he was apologizing to his wife for forcing her to go through that scene for the sake of his film.

But one look at Connelly as she watched her husband try to apologize in his own way for making her do that, you can see that’s not how she saw it.  She was just Hannah in that scene, not Jennifer Connelly.  She was telling Hannah’s story, not Jennifer Connelly’s story.  It’s seeing that in her eyes, you understand why she’s the one with the golden statue.  She earned that Oscar and you can see why she deserved the most coveted prize.  She lives up to that statue’s reputation.  She is an actress and plays the role impeccably.

The good thing about Connelly is that you can expect everyone else in the film to bring their A-game to the set each and every day.  That’s what Mackie brought to the film.  He brought his A-game.

While this film acts one part documentary of the homeless situation, it also shares its own beauty in the cinematography.  You can see the beauty and art of the film from the first few seconds as the introductory credits begin and then as it hits its peak in the rain, when the two actors plunge into the pool of water, and ends with a frosted over window on a train.

Paul Bettany’s directorial debut is perfection from beginning to end.  He pushes the envelope and takes us into places where we dare not tread in order to show the world…THIS IS HAPPENING.  It’s a cry that it’s time we do something.

For those in NYC who want to do something or if you (or someone you know) needs help, Coalition for the Homeless is there to help.  In New York, Supportive Housing Network of NY is also available.

Another resource located in Detroit, a group called The Empowerment Plan is a non-profit that employ the homeless and gives them a living wage to make coats for the homeless.  Those coats are now being distributed all around the world to the homeless.  You can’t buy the coat, but you can help by donating to the group so that they can make more coats for people on the streets.

You can learn more about the film and where you can view the interview at New York Film Critics.  There, the stars and director share their stories on how the story came into being and what playing these roles meant to them.

All in all, this film is about how we place judgment on the homeless.  The purpose is to try to create understanding that will hopefully change the way we see people living on the streets.  Maybe it will create change within ourselves by doing something to help.

Shelter is due to be released in movie theaters on Friday, November 13th.