Two questions come to mind when I see a homeless person. How did they get into this situation? And how will they get out of it?
My response to the homeless varies. There are certain types for whom I have great sympathy. Others simply puzzle me, or even frighten me.
When I first spent time in the city, the homeless were mostly older men down on their luck. Then came a wave of mental patients who’d been turned out onto the streets because there weren’t enough beds for them at local clinics. Then, because we had a mayor who wanted our city to be a family friendly place for tourists, the homeless population dwindled, as if swept under a carpet. In recent years I’ve seen an upsurge, with many war veterans on the street, and a surprising number of teenagers setting up camps near the subway station, smirking at passersby as if their condition is one big ironic joke. In the new movie Time Out of Mind, we see all of these variations of homeless people, and what happens in between the moments when we walk past them on the way to our jobs.
The movie seems to know the realities of the homeless, or as they’re sometimes called now, the “reduced.” If you’ve ever seen one of the down and outers with a new bottle of his favorite vodka, and wondered how he afforded it, this movie tells you.
George Hammond (Richard Gere) is homeless in New York. The first time we see him, he’s hiding in an abandoned building, asleep in a bathtub. When a renovation team lead by Steve Buscemi arrives to work on the place, George rambles on about a woman named Sheila. He seems delusional. There’s a bit of a cat and mouse game as George tries to stay in the building, but he’s soon out on the street, sleeping rough.
George is a mystery. He may be mentally ill, but sometimes he’s lucid. He has a long scar on the side of his scalp. Did he fall down while drunk and crack his skull? Is that why he’s forgetful? In the course of the movie we learn that he’s an alcoholic, has some ability as a pianist, and occasionally relied on the kindness of women to get him through hard times. “I’m not handsome,” he says at one point. “But maybe I used to be.”
We follow George as he tries one shelter, then another. He’s subjected to various screening processes, to see exactly what sort of help he may require. The questions confuse and irritate him. He’s smart enough to hock his coat at a pawn shop to make a few dollars, and then find a replacement coat at a nearby church. But the questions about his past seem unanswerable. A glimmer of hope appears in the form of his long estranged daughter, but their relationship is frazzled. In time, George is eating out of garbage bins.
Though much of George’s life seems grim, the movie points out something we don’t usually consider, that the worst thing about being homeless is that you spend most of your time with other homeless people. The movie avoids the old trope about homeless men being secret geniuses. The men George meets at the shelters are mostly idiots and liars, or so sick that they aren’t much help to him. One, played by Ben Vereen in a beautifully scratchy performance, claims to have once been a promising jazz musician. One night Vereen disappears, banished from the shelter for being a nuisance. George fears that he, too, may one day vanish, as if the “reduced” are eventually reduced to nothing.
Gere gives a career best performance as George Hammond. He has a stunning scene near the end where he realizes a lifetime of bad choices has brought him to this point, and that not even his daughter wants to help him. Actors like to play homeless alcoholics because it gives them a chance to be outrageous, but Gere smartly underplays everything. I imagine this is the sort of role he’s wanted to play for years, while trapped in a cycle of romantic comedies. (On a side note, there’s only one homeless woman in the movie, a former prostitute played by Kyra Sedgwick. For some reason, George and the old girl end up having intercourse under a blue plastic tarp. I’m not sure why the scene existed, unless it was to show that, despite losing his identity, George still had the old charm.)
A minor fault in the film is that writer/director Oren Moverman doesn’t quite trust the plainness of the story, so he overcooks it with lots of high-flying camera work. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski comes up with some Oscar worthy innovations, shooting entire scenes through dirty windows, giving people a blurred, ghostly appearance. Sometimes characters seem to disappear as they’re talking, which is a striking effect. I also liked how much of the sound seems to be buried, as if George is only hearing snippets of conversations, or voices from behind walls. Still, there’s a thin line between artful and artsy, and this movie stumbles onto the worst side of things more than once. I preferred the simpler scenes, where George gets by on his wits, or notches a small victory by finding a quiet place to sit for a while.
After the movie, as I walked to the train station, I was approached by a homeless man who asked if I had a cigarette. He wore no shoes. I said that I had none, and he walked on. That was it. It will take more than a Richard Gere movie to change the dynamic of these encounters. But as I waited for my train, I felt the temperature dropping. Winter was coming, and these nights would be horrible for men like George Hammond. Out of curiosity, I looked down the tracks for the shoeless man, wondering if he’d scored his cigarette. He was long gone.