Given the presence of Richard Gere and other name actors, one might expect Time Out of Mind to have all the pluses and minuses of a conventional Hollywood release. But I found it to be less like that kind of movie and much more like the typical indie film.
It tackles a socially very significant topic (homelessness). It’s slow developing compared to the mainstream films most moviegoers have grown used to. There isn’t all that much of a plot to it, at least in terms of a definitive beginning, middle, and end, where ultimately everything is resolved. It’s really more a slice of life, showing you a few days in the life of a homeless person. The main character is silent for long periods. There are dramatic moments, but not in the extreme sense of gun battles and the like. There are no wildly expensive special effects.
Gere’s George has mental issues, but they don’t seem too extreme. On the other hand, the evidence is limited, so it’s hard to say.
He doesn’t speak all that much, and most of the time he does he’s fully lucid and seemingly sane, but still, there’s evidence that he’s a little “off”:
Here and there he comes across as disoriented—not knowing what day it is, making vague references to people and events that would have no meaning to the people he’s talking to, etc. On some of these occasions, he has just been awakened, or is drunk (alcoholism is both one of the ways he’s learned to cope with his plight, and, we learn, one of the causes of it). There’s also sometimes kind of a vague sense that he has withdrawn from the world and doesn’t much care to make himself understood. But even given all that, I think he’s out of it enough to indicate some degree of mental illness.
He is far from ideally pragmatic in seeking and accepting the available help for homeless people, being only intermittently cooperative when social workers and the like seek information from him to try to help him. But if not always acting in one’s self-interest made one insane, I dare say everyone would be insane to at least some extent. What I inferred is that he’s just sick of trying, that he’s told his story so many times and run into so many dead ends that he doesn’t want to bother any more. So he’ll make some effort here and there to better his lot (most often in this period that happens to be depicted in the film that consists of trying to get I.D. from various government agencies), usually when he’s pushed into it by somebody, but it’s not sustained.
He makes reference to how in his state he’s really not functional in a conventional sense, not employable certainly. Maybe that indicates an awareness that he can’t think straight any more, but I think you can be in a kind of downward spiral, and completely out of the habit of behaving and thinking in ways that would enable you to do things like hold down a job—and be aware of it—without being crazy.
Overall, he just doesn’t strike me as mentally ill in the same kind of creepy, spooky way as, say, the protagonist in Keane. Instead he comes across as at most only slightly more mentally ill than your garden variety “fuck up” (to use the term he applies to himself) who aggravates his disabilities with excessive drinking.
We learn George’s backstory—incompletely, and in dribs and drabs—as he tells it to other characters. Assuming we can take at face value all that he says, he apparently had once had a fairly “normal” life—middle class, white professional I gather. Then he lost his family. His wife died of breast cancer. Presumably at least partly as a result of that trauma he proved unable to adequately parent their daughter, who was 12 when his wife died.
He and the now adult daughter are estranged, with indications that toward the end she was burdened with the responsibility of trying to save him more than he took care of her. She lives and works in this same neighborhood where he’s now homeless though, and he hovers on the outskirts of her life, sort of wanting a healthier relationship with her, sort of wanting more help from her, sort of wanting to apologize or explain, but in any case not wanting to walk away from any hope of a future connection with her.
But he has learned that relationships on the streets are even more fragile and transient than the relationships of his former life.
He apparently recently had some friend or girlfriend named Sheila that he has since lost track of. That’s, again, if we’re to believe what he says. Which I’m inclined to do, as I just don’t see him as delusional in the way that, say, the aforementioned protagonist of Keane comes across.
Then again, he does run into another homeless woman during the movie that he convinces himself is Sheila, while she denies it in a way that I think we’re supposed to believe her, so he does apparently lose touch with reality at least sometimes.
But anyway, Sheila comes and goes before the events depicted in the movie, and then during the movie he acquires a sidekick (Ben Vereen, who is the kind of person who believes that to stand up for oneself requires talking ceaselessly) who comes and goes even more suddenly, and you sense that this is something of a pattern with George, that any time he starts to feel a significant connection with someone from the world of the homeless he loses them.
I’m inclined to believe Time Out of Mind is quite realistic in its portrayal of homelessness. Not in the sense that homeless people are all like George, because such a generalization would be silly, but in the sense that there probably are homeless person quite a bit like George, and other homeless people quite a bit like some of the other characters in this movie, and that the kinds of places these characters frequent and the kinds of things they experience also are similar to the circumstances and experiences of many real homeless people.
One thing the movie gave me even more of an appreciation of is how incredibly helpful it is to have someone simply help you navigate the system when you’re overwhelmed by circumstances like that. There are several characters in the movie that to varying degrees attempt to assist George in finding a place to sleep, getting mental health help, getting the I.D. he needs for any kind of government assistance, etc., with the folks at the Coalition for the Homeless (a real organization, by the way) seeming especially heroic. As I mentioned, he’s only somewhat willing and able to receive the assistance, so his progress is slow and limited, but without people making the effort for him (and the homeless in general) surely he (and they) would be in even worse shape. It truly is a way to make a positive difference in the world.
Because it’s not enough that there be certain kinds of aid available to people in need. They have to know about it, and they have to know and be capable of following the procedure to get it. Especially when you’re talking about people who—whether their fault or not—are at a stage in their life where they aren’t even functional enough to keep a roof over their head, that can require a lot of patience, persistence, simplified communication, hand-holding, etc. from those willing to help.
There’s something about the atmospherics of this movie, the way his environment is depicted as he drifts through each day, that seemed just a little bit unconventional but that is hard to describe.
Since he rarely talks much, there’s more of an opportunity to focus on other sounds. And my impression is that conversation is disproportionately frequent in what we hear. Almost always the camera is focused on him so it’s just background noise, but it seems like that background noise is human voices often enough that it’s unlikely that’s not intentional.
And I don’t think the implication is that as a largely silent person he’s an unusually good listener, and that they’re sharing with us all that he is being attentive to, because I get the impression he’s typically not paying attention to what’s going on around him. But it just seems like we’re hearing a lot more halves of phone conversations and such than traffic noises or music or whatever other ambient sounds you might expect, though assuming I’m right about that being intentional, I’m not sure what the film is trying to get across through that device. Maybe just that he’s ignored, that there’s always a lot of communication going on around him, but that it’s almost never directed at him, since the homeless are people most folks don’t even think to engage with.
But like I say, the movie, and the character of George, seem impressively realistic. He is not made too perfect on the theory that that’s the only kind of person the audience will recognize as not “deserving” to be homeless, but nor does he fit some simplistic negative stereotype of a bum. He’s a little bit crazy, but not so lost in his own bizarre world that you can’t imagine yourself in his shoes. You can point to ways in which his plight is his own fault, but at least as much you can cite circumstances and luck.
I think he ends up being a sympathetic character, and therefore hopefully encourages the audience to be a bit more sympathetic toward homeless people in general in real life, but the movie doesn’t hit you over the head trying to get you to like him in a way that feels creepy and manipulative.
Time Out of Mind is the kind of slow, indie-style film that didn’t really grab my attention and put me on the edge of my seat. So in that sense it’s not as powerful as I can imagine a film on this topic could be. It’s more the kind of movie that I was somewhat into while watching but not fully engrossed in, but that in the end I appreciated maybe a little more on a deeper level than the more immediately emotionally hard-hitting conventional films. That is, the degree to which I’m glad I saw this movie modestly exceeds the (moderate) degree to which I enjoyed it while I was actually watching it.