Time Out of Mind

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.



Inherent Vice

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson

I am a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and his work. There Will Be Blood stands out in particular as one of my all time favourite films. Therefore I was very much looking forward to seeing Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon book of the same name. Having not read any of Pynchon’s work, it is my understanding that he is famous for writing novels that many consider to be unfilmable – dense and complex stories with large narratives and interweaving characters. If any director is capable of adapting that kind of story to the screen, it’s definitely Anderson. His work on Magnolia shows that he knows how to make a film that encompasses several different stories and characters that all serve to articulate an overarching narrative. However, unlike Magnolia, I did not find myself to be particularly impressed or entertained by this film. The trouble is that I cannot figure out whether this is because Anderson has failed as a writer and director to convey this story or if I have failed as a viewer to understand it. I always try to be careful not to fall into the trap of dismissing a film just because I don’t get it, so I will try to proceed with caution.

As best as I understand it, the story involves the private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who is called upon to investigate three different cases that intertwine with one another and all point to one elaborate conspiracy. The first of these cases arrives in the form of Shasta (Katherine Waterston), an old flame who asks Doc to save her new lover Mickey Wolfmann from a plot devised by Mickey’s wife and her lover. The second comes in the form of a Black Guerrilla Family member who hires Doc to track down an Aryan Brotherhood member who owes him money. This AB member Glen Charlock happens to be one of Mickey Wolfmann’s bodyguards. The third case comes in the form of Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a former drug addict who appeals to Doc to find her missing husband Coy (Owen Wilson), a saxophone player who she’s been told is dead but whom she believes to be alive. All the while the narration of Doc’s journey is provided by the (possibly) ethereal Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) whose guidance often helps Doc whenever he is stuck.

The film is set in California during the psychedelic 70s and Doc is very much a man of his time. He is a lethargic stoner without any drive or ambition who is only spurred into action by a desire to win his ex-girlfriend back. He wanders aimlessly from place to place and stumbles his way into sticky situations that he meets with a somewhat apathetic attitude. Phoenix plays him to perfection. The problem is that I did not find his story to be very engaging. As soon as we are introduced to Doc, the film presents us with plot point after plot point and never allows any time for the audience to take it all in. Perhaps this was intentional on Anderson’s part, to present the viewer with an overabundance of information in order to convey a chaotically absurd tone that engulfs the viewer with an overwhelming sense of incongruity and arouses their curiosity. However such a concept only works if the viewer is at least entertained and stimulated by what is happening even if they cannot necessarily follow or understand it, kind of like watching an episode of Louie. Even in the parts where I was able to follow what was happening, I simply wasn’t very interested or absorbed by what was happening or by what Doc was going through. I never found myself rooting for him and I never found myself overcome by the chaotic strangeness of what was happening.

There are certainly strong points to this film. There are a wide range of eccentric characters played impeccably by their actors, especially Lt. Det. Christian F. ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a comically hard as nails cop who relentlessly persecutes Doc and beats him indiscriminately. Anderson, who is famous for his attention to detail, expertly creates an environment that depicts 1970s California with its sunny beaches, vibrant clothing and bizarre people all clouded by the hazy fog of smoke through which Doc views the world. He also includes a plethora of visual gags, from Bigfoot and his chocolate-coated bananas to the hippie recreation of the Last Supper, that provide the film with humourous highlights. However it is difficult to appreciate the strengths of this film when confronted with an overwhelming lack of engagement in the overall story.

I find myself wondering whether this is a film that I could possibly grow to appreciate with successive viewings. However, if it is the case that this film needs to be viewed multiple times in order to be appreciated, does that make it a good film or a bad one? If I had read Pynchon’s book beforehand and allowed this vast and complicated story to develop at my own pace, would I have been able to engage with this film and enjoy what Anderson was able to bring to it and, more importantly, would that make it a good adaptation or a bad one? Usually when I’m struggling to understand a film, I find that the best way to assess it is by my engagement and emotional response. A few weeks ago I went to watch the thematically similar Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and, even though I did not have a fucking clue what was happening, I was still able to enjoy the film for its wonderfully strange visuals, its twisted humour and its ridiculously weird characters. Inherent Vice, in contrast, failed to engross me in what was happening and failed to have any significant impact on me. While writing this review it occurred to me that I cannot even remember how the film ends. I’m sure that there are many who disagree with me and who enjoyed this film, but for me it was simply not captivating or memorable.