Cast: Richard Gere, Ben Vereen, Jena Malone, Kyra Sedgwick, Steve Buscemi
Director: Oren Moverman
Writer: Oren Moverman
It’s easy to view the homeless as little more than faces on the street. It’s easy to forget that they are real people who have led real lives and who have real stories to tell. It’s easy to underestimate how much they have to struggle to find the things that the rest of us take for granted such as food, clothes and shelter. This is why films like Time Out of Mind are important. Films that are based on an informed and empathetic understanding of a struggle such as this are able to bring those stories to a wider audience. They can give a voice to the voiceless and a face to the faceless. They can inform, enlighten and challenge audiences about issues that they have perhaps never really thought about or that they’ve even tried to ignore. Homelessness is not a pretty issue which is why Time Out of Mind is not a pretty picture. It is harsh, uncomfortable and forlorn, just like the world these men and women have to live in.
George (Richard Gere) is a homeless man in Manhattan. We don’t know who he is or what his story is, we only know that he spends his days not knowing where he’s going to sleep tonight or where his meals are going to come from. He applies for refuge at Bellevue Hospital where he is required to sit through endless interviews in order to be accepted. Once in he inadvertently becomes friends with another homeless man called Dixon (Ben Vereen), a man who is utterly incapable of shutting up even when the lights are out and everyone’s trying to sleep. As the film follows George going about his day he crosses paths with a variety of characters including Art (Steve Buscemi), an ambivalently unbending building manager, Karen (Kyra Sedgwick), an eccentric homeless woman, and Maggie (Jena Malone), George’s estranged and unsympathetic daughter.
While there is a story taking place in this film, Time Out of Mind is not a plot-driven film. The beginning is not really the beginning and the end is not really the end. It’s more about the kind of life that this man leads than it is about reaching some sort of narrative resolution. While the film does end on quite a definitive note, it is still inconclusive and open-ended. After all the struggles this man has had to endure in the film’s runtime, we aren’t given any real assurance that things are going to get better for him in the future. We only get a hint that things might get better. Even then it’s not going to be easy and it definitely isn’t going to be painless. And that’s the point. Homelessness is not a problem that can be solved overnight, not even on an individual level. It’s about more than finding a home and making a living, it’s about changing a person’s frame of mind and having them go through a delicate process of rehabilitation. Maybe George is up for that task or maybe he’s reached an age where he’s too old to change. Time Out of Mind is not interested in happy endings or in pathos, it is interested in honesty.
Richard Gere single-handedly carries this film, giving a modest, understated performance. It is interesting to see a famous Hollywood star inhabiting such an unpretentiously deglamourized role as this. There is one scene when the registrar at the homeless shelter conducts an interview with him and asks if he’s ever been married, commenting “a handsome man such as yourself”. George’s embarrassed reaction to this comment is certainly indicative of the past life he led that perhaps led him to where he is, but one wonders whether it’s also the film trying to sneakily address the elephant in the room. While George is poor, dejected and miserable, there’s no getting around the fact that he looks like Richard Gere. In any case Gere delivers an admirably authentic performance as he conveys the gloom, loneliness and degradation that has become this man’s life. That he was able to carry the entirety of the film on his shoulders with such a subdued performance is commendable.
Homelessness is a difficult issue to contend with which is perhaps why Time Out of Mind can be quite difficult to watch. It directly addresses an issue that many people are often uncomfortable with addressing. It’s easier to let the homeless people we see on the pavement just blend in with their surroundings, to view them in the same way we view the traffic and the rubbish on the streets. These are all things we can escape as soon as we enter our homes. The homeless however do not have that luxury. The sound in Time Out of Mind places special emphasis on the noises of the New York streets such as the running engines of the cars, the obtrusive beeping of mobile phones and the inane chatter of passing pedestrians. These are sounds that George cannot escape wherever he goes, so instead they are a part of the life that he lives. Time Out of Mind is a rough film for an infinitely rougher subject.