Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 7; Sex /Nudity 3.
Our rating (1-5): 4.5
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me…”
Short of leaving behind our wallets and good clothing and taking to the streets ourselves for a week, becoming involved in director/writer Oren Moverman’s powerful film about a homeless man is as close as we can get to the stark reality that far too many people face. I write “becoming involved” because this is not a film one just watches. Thanks to Richard Gere’s magnificent acting and the sensitive writing and direction, this is a film that draws you into its life. I do not recall a single moment when I could ease back in my seat and relax, each incident that befalls Mr. Gere’s hapless George Hammond being so upsetting and unsettling.
There is little or no soundtrack music for the first part of the film. Instead, we hear the voices of those around George as he wanders hallways and city streets. From the snatches of conversations that we catch we are shown that life goes on around the homeless George, but in no way is he included—or in most cases is his existence acknowledged, unless he is in the way. Years ago Ralph Ellison wrote in his novel The Invisible Man that blacks were invisible as far as the majority of whites were concerned: today, the homeless, regardless of race, are the invisible ones.
With no backstory we are thrust right into George’s sad life when a building manager (Steve Buscemi), showing someone the dilapidated apartment, comes upon George sleeping in the bathtub. When roused and asked what is he doing in the place, he struggles to put words together, mumbling something about “waiting for her.” It takes some time for the frustrated manager to get George to pack his belongings and then to lure him out of the apartment and onto the street. George seems puzzled by his surroundings as he trudges along trailing a small carry-on case and a plastic bag of clothing, and we see later, some papers and photographs. He follows a black man and a blond young white woman to a bar, where she works as a bar maid. He talks someone into delivering to her some photographs, but does not go in to talk with her.
For the next couple days George wanders the streets or rides the subway; attempts to sleep on a bench; and fails to navigate the intake system at Bellevue Hospital. For a couple of days all he has to eat or drink is a six-pack he buys with the little money that he has. He secures a little more cash by pawning the short, but once fine, overcoat that he has used to ward off the cold those first couple of nights. When he is interviewed by a clerk at Belleview, he has trouble answering her questions—all he wants is for her to give him the papers that will grant him a warm bed and a plate of food the next morning.
The shelter system is not an easy one to navigate for a man whose “time is out of mind”—not only can he not remember his Social Security number, but he has only vague memories of the past few years on the street. He comes close to getting into a fight with a racist fellow shelter client, and when he picks up Dixon (Ben Vereen) for a companion—or we should say, Dixon picks him up–the motor-mouth old blackman disturbs George’s silence so much that he wishes the black man to go away. But when this happens, George feels his loneliness all the more, his isolation intensified when he tries to get help at various city offices. A couple of the clerks show great patience and compassion as they try to extract the information necessary to receive more help, but in his mentally dilapidated state he just cannot call it up. About all he can say is, “I’m just a f—k up.”
There is little of religion in the film, except for Dixon’s showing George the Lord’s Prayer tatooed on his back. This might seem like a strange witness to others of the blackman’s faith, but it suggests that he is still clinging to the idea that God is watching over him. Note George’s inappropriate reaction to Dixon’s witness—or, in the light of his experience, is it so? If, as the old song puts it, “His eye is on the sparrow,” then “He” seems to have overlooked George. Another matter in regard to the old black man is his claim to be a jazz pianist: what did you think when he had the opportunity to sit down at the small piano, and he…? Later, George surprises us, leading us to wonder more about his background
We discover that our earlier suspicion about the young girl he had followed might be his estranged daughter is right. She is Maggie (Jena Malone), maybe the “her” he had been waiting for back at he apartment, but who must have broken off contact because of his drinking—in addition to beer, he polishes off a bottle of liquor at one point. When he tries to reconnect with her, Maggie wants no part of him. She is very resentful that following the death of her mother from cancer he had fallen into such a state of helpless grief that her grandmother had stepped in and raised her during the years he was lost in the city streets.
George’s islotaion is well depicted by the fine camera work of Bobby Bukowski who shoots him through windows, doorways, and mirrors, while at other times he almost loses him in a long shot of crowded streets or in the immense main hall of Grand Central Station. These shots, along with the already mentioned snatches of conversations, make us feel like we too are wandering around and evesdropping on the man. The noise of grumbling and arguing in the shelter and the wailing sirens outside shows how difficult it is for the disturbed mind of George to relax and escape into sleep.
This is a minimalist production that packs a maximum punch. Before this the two films that I’ve used to explore with groups the plight of the homeless were excellent The Saint of Fort Washington and God Bless the Child. Now there is one more. It is a film requiring close concentration, unlike so many studio films, but the result is worth the effort. Oren Moverman offers no solution, and just a faint touch of hope in the very last shot that takes a long time to fade to black. His is not a film about the issue of homeless. Rather, it is about a homeless man. Words said of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman also apply to George:
“…His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.” (Act 1)
Some critics have written that the film’s title comes from Bob Dylan’s 30th album of the same name, but I prefer the explanation of another reviewer that it comes from a verse of Warren Zevon’s song “Accidentally Like a Martyr.” This originally was a love-lost song, but about midway through it this verse is sung:
“The days slide by, should have done
Should have done, we all sigh
Never thought I’d ever be so lonely
After such a long, long time
Time out of mind.”
This review includes 12 discussion questions in the October VP.