The Shelter is the debut feature of writer, producer, actor and director John Fallon. It is a psychological and spiritual drama with a brooding horror underneath for good measure.
I would say it is the kind of film that explores the kind of themes that would only get made independently, and I say that as a huge compliment. It is one of the many reasons I am glad, as a website owner and movie reviewer, I get to see independent films: for the ideas.
It stars Michael Paré who has been garnering an incredible amount of praise for his performance, and rightfully so. It is the sort of soulful, captivating, varied and powerful performance that not only breathes every squeak of life into the script and the premise but also keeps an audience glued to their seat, unable to look away. Good thing too because Paré is on screen the whole time and, for most of it, he's alone.
The story of The Shelter revolves around Paré as Thomas Jacob. He's a drinking, smoking and screwing, down on his luck hobo with twin bags of guilt and self-loathing. Showing up in an unnamed town he drifts from place to place as we slowly learn scraps of his tragic back story. Finally he winds up at an abandoned, new, white, sterile, eerie town house. Once he enters, he is unable to leave and suffers a long a night of soul challenging haunting, visions and dreams.
While a little slow and definitely, frustratingly cryptic in places, the movie excels through the lead performance, the direction, the cinematography and the score. Its lush, crisp photography (by Bobby Holbrook), that makes strong use of light and iconography, and Fallon's keen eye for an interesting angle or a curious piece of intriguing symbolism, lends the whole film a rich, disturbing atmosphere.
The colour scheme is particularly effective and different. While some scenes feel realistic, others are photographed in cold blues, odd greens and moody oranges. Such thought and attention has been paid to the overall look of the film, which is wonderful because so many low budget productions forget to do so.
Keen attention has also, clearly, been placed on which film stock and even which film speed to use, especially during the fantasy segments. There are some very striking and beautiful images contained within the film and the production should be applauded for their cinematic achievements. Although kept to a pleasing minimum, the use of CGI is highly effective also.
The score by, friend of the Diner and co-host of We Came From The Basement, Shawn Knippelberg is a discordant, moody and different delight! It's never intrusive and always on point, helping and, sometimes, creating the atmosphere of the film. It perfectly accompanies the drama or the delirium as a good score should do. You never quite know where it's coming from, what you're hearing or even what it's being played on and this adds to your sense of unease.
Also, the juxtaposition of the re-occurring folk song is perfectly jarring and a confident stroke that could so easily fail and yet here succeeds beautifully.
A mention here, too, for the small supporting cast. As I said earlier, most of the film is a one-hander with Paré, who is excellent and not to be missed, but in the few key scenes where he is interacting with, mostly, the women in his life they are all very strong performers and distinguish themselves well.
Over all the creative and talented successes in this film far outweigh its weaknesses which, for me, came down to the pacing in some places and the ambiguity of the final act. Maybe I have grown jaded on a steady diet of easily explainable and satisfactorily wrapped up Hollywood fare or maybe I don't remember the religious texts that were drilled into me back in school but I did feel that some of the film's intention and meaning was lost on me.
Maybe that was the point. The film is definitely open to interpretation. That is, also, let's be fair, utterly refreshing when compared to other, tried-and-tested, cookie cutter movies. When was the last time you were left asking questions or thinking about what it all means?
In my mind the film is dealing with themes and mostly ideas, emotions and experiences that people keep inside, hidden, gnawing away at them, picking at the thread of their subconscious. It tries its best to visualise and manifest feelings of self pity, self doubt, loss, guilt, anger, regret and everything else our, de facto, hero is carrying around with him. Its with this task that I think the film definitely succeeds.
It's the religious underpinnings and possible message that maybe was lost to me but this also means the film will hold up, for me, to repeat viewings and finding new things each time. In the end though, having a satisfactory conclusion or all of your questions answered is not what it's about. It's clearly a very personal, intelligent work of art by an emerging, talented filmmaker and an aging character actor showing he has depth and range with challenging material.
Everyone will take something different from The Shelter and everyone will find something they think is enjoyable, intriguing, beautiful and/or sinister. Whatever aspect of the piece grabs you then I guarantee it'll be with you a while. I know, for me, the photography, the atmosphere and some of the images will take a long while to shake off.
Watch the trailer and an exclusive scene from The Shelter below and find out more about the film on its website.
Review by Jon Cross, editor and creator of The After Movie Diner website