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Movie Review: Shelter(2010)

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Shelter (2010) opens on the forensic psychiatrist Cara Harding (Julianne Moore) who seems to have a special interest in multiple personality disorder. Her evaluation of a criminal who has obviously pleaded insanity sends the gentleman in question to the electric chair. Subsequent conversations between her and her father Dr. Harding (Jeffrey DeMunn) quickly reveal that debunking presumed sufferers from multiple personality disorder is something of a speciality of Cara’s. She is yet to be proven wrong in her estimations. That’s where David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) comes into the equation.

Dr. Harding presents Cara with this interesting patient, a young man in a wheelchair who has been found on the street, lost and without any recollection as to how he wound up where he was. What starts as an interesting battle of intellects between Cara and her father quickly turns into something else when David starts switching personalities. His alters, Adam and Wesley, make appearances and Cara is starting to have to question her iron-clad beliefs and assumptions.

So far so good. I am actually with the story up to this point. Multiple-personality disorder is a very much discussed phenomena and it’s been pretty thoroughly debunked, but it makes for great entertainment in this kind of setting. The problem here is that this is where this story veers off into the supernatural. People start dying in gruesome, horrendous and very specific ways while Cara investigates the various alters of David only to find that they all existed, and that the young man is not so much disturbed, as possessed.

Okay, fine. I’ll roll with it. So he is possessed and not disturbed. It isn’t until we wind up in the mountains with a bunch of shaggy-looking mountain people and an old hag with the ability to suck a persons soul out and then put it back in that the atmospheric scenery and all-in-all pretty solid performances no longer outweigh the frank silliness of the basic plot. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that makes this too hard to swallow, but I think it’s in part the fact that we started out on fairly solid ground with sharp-witted dialogue and an intriguing concept and suddenly find ourselves in a stereotypical back-water village in the hills that seems to belong in a Tales from the Crypt episode.

David turns out to be a priest on whom the mountain witch “Granny” (Joyce Feurring) has put a curse so that he now has to provide “shelter” for all those souls that have lost their faith in God. That’s the reason why so many different personalities are living in that one body. Then, for whatever reason, David starts going after the various members of Cara’s family and some of her acquaintances as well. It ends up becoming a battle for the souls, with Cara’s daughter, Sammy (Brooklynn Proulx) as the main damsel-in-distress.

There’s a definite risk with making a movie that has a slight case of multiple-personality disorder itself. It’s a mystery and a crime story and a thriller and a horror flick all in one, and it switches between these different language codes in a way that could have worked, could have been clever. The performances are strong throughout, Julianne Moore delivers, as does Jeffrey DeMunn as her father and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the various incarnations of whoever is in David’s body at the moment. The problem is more that this devolves into a fairly trite horror movie, nothing particularly original about it, and the twist at the very end isn’t surprising, or even mildly upsetting, at least not to this viewer who saw it coming a mile away.

It fails at going into some of the basic archetypal fears that could have made it truly frightening, like the inherent instability of the human psyche, something we rely no being more writ in stone than it really is, and opts instead for a vague kind of religious gloss of the old fire-and-brimstone variety, which, again, would have been fine, if it had any kind of lead-in other than the gruesome deaths of the people occupying the preacher’s body.

Even the Witch Of The Hills is an archetype that could have been unsettling, but here she isn’t even set up in opposition with the basic Christian morality she is supposed to act in contrast to. Instead it all comes down to having faith in a standard issue Christian God, especially when the chips are down, because if you don’t a rogue damned and hill-witch cursed preacher is going to come and kill you. See what I mean? It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t keep any of the promises it made in the opening. This movie is quite simply not as clever as it would like to be. I wouldn’t waste my time with this one.

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About Mule

  • But MPD has not been debunked. There is strong scientific evidence it exists and it is in the DSM-IV-TR.

    MPD/DID is a dissociative disorder and is rarely comorbid with schizophrenia. MPD/DID is caused by severe, repeated abuse.

    Schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder which has a genetic component and may be caused by psychosocial stressors.

    Most mental health diagnosis are not treated realistically in movies or TV.

  • Mule

    I certainly mean no disrespect to those that have been diagnosed with MPD. I believe that there has, however, been quite a lot of discussion about the diagnosis in general (how MPD/DID relates to schizophrenia and other comorbid conditions). Please bear in mind that this is a movie review, however, and as such it deals with how these phenomena are treated in popular culture. That tends to be a simplified version of complex phenomenons, especially once they’ve trickled down to the horror level. Thank you for pointing those interested in the condition in the right direction.