I’ve put off writing a review of Time Out of Mind, the Opening Night film at the Sarasota Film Festival, for now four days. It’s been a hard film to process. On the one hand, the movie, about the challenging life of a New York homeless man spending time both in and out of the shelter system, is not an enjoyable experience. The film lasts 120 minutes, but a challenging pace, particularly in the first half, makes it feel like a four-hour run time.
And yet, this film has the power to change you, to alter the way you see the very world around you and the empathy you feel for others living on this planet under circumstances almost certainly more trying than your own. It may be a task to watch, but you will be better off for doing so.
Time Out Of Mind introduces us to Gere’s character George, an unsympathetic figure who lives in New York sleeping anywhere he can. He invades empty apartments and lies about whether he has permission to stay. When you find him swilling wine straight from a bottle in an ATM cove, you understand why a woman who wonders in does not feel safe. He hangs out in emergency room lobbies as long as sympathetic staff will allow him to do so, and turns hostile if someone asks him to go. A mix of pride and denial at first keep him away from the shelters, but the prospect of freezing to death eventually leads him to check the system out.
Along the way, we learn George lost his wife to illness and become estranged with a daughter who wants nothing to do with his crazy life. We also see interactions with other homeless people, both those too stubborn to be empowered by social service programs and those who use the system as a crutch.
Noone proves especially likable, but that is clearly by design. Ben Vereen’s talkative Dixon, a character who appears in about a third of the film but likely has two thirds of the scripted lines, stands out as the most likable but least motivated person in this world. Jeremy Strong’s Jack tosses out accurate facts about the New York homeless only to support a perverted white supremacist worldview. And Kyra Sedgwick provides a surprisingly convincing portrayal of an ex-prostitute before participating in the least arousing sex scene ever to also star Richard Gere (picture pretty much the opposite of Pretty Woman).
So with so many stand-out performances from both pedigreed actors and impressive up-and-comers, how does the movie feel so exhausting and unrewarding? The best answer is likely that the characters’ own lives seem doomed to a life with no chance of great rewards.
Director Oren Moverman was careful not to take sides in the film as far as how society might solve the homeless problem. In fact, he seems instead to condemn all sides, finding fault in apathy and intervention alike. No outside force seems capable of restoring hope for anyone in this human drama, and yet leaving people to their own devices seems a reprehensible option as well. For every public program designed to lure transients into the safety of the shelter system, there seems an entire bureaucracy standing as an obstacle to anyone trying to stand on their own feet. In one scene, George is denied a birth certificate unless he has a driver’s license, passport or military I.D., to which Dixon replies “If he had any of these things do you think he would be here?” The moment incited laughter at the Sarasota screening, but it the laughs were laced in schadenfreude. Certainly, it’s not hard to find homeless people in Sarasota’s makeshift camps with similar—but true—tales to tell about losing your identity to the great well of forgotten records.
Shots are framed to highlight how most New Yorkers go through life refusing to even acknowledge the existence of the homeless. In fact, Moverman revealed in an audience session after the screening that most of the film was shot with hidden cameras so as not to grab attention; the New Yorkers actively ignoring the downtrodden were real citizens unaware they were stepping past a well-soiled Richard Gere and Ben Vereen.
The ending for this movie offers a glimmer of hope for Gere, but not enough to provide much joy for the audience. For the most part, the on-screen misery begets similar emotion for the viewer. Yet, there is value there, too.
The worth of that pain was exemplified for me the night of the screening. Shortly after credits rolled and a panel concluded, I was walking the couple blocks between the Sarasota Opera House and our corporate offices, donned in a suit jacket and carrying a couple hundred dollars worth of computer equipment. I browsed past the fountain at Pineapple and Lemon in Downtown Sarasota and spotted three people using the benches for a home. Two men sat under a streetlight discussing whatever they had to discuss, while a third used a rolled-up leather knapsack as a pillow and slept underneath the wiry seats. The juxtaposition was incredible, leaving a party people paid $100 a head to attend and watch a film on the lives of homeless people, all as the real deal slept restlessly outside.
I might never have noticed these men on another night, or if I had I might first thought of my possessions and less about their lack thereof. But on this night, I felt a different level of compassion than I likely would have without seeing Time Out of Mind. How much does it matter that I just care a little more? Will that change in perception even endure? Only time will tell, but if everyone who watches this film starts thinking of these transients in a different way, as figures in need of compassion instead of either apathy or sympathy, then maybe society will move one step closer to curing a serious social ill.