Note: This is not a review. I can’t quite process this movie enough to give a general review. After two viewings, I still can’t decide if I even like it or not. The things that hurt are too strong to let me fairly judge the better parts. So all I’m going to do here is share my thoughts on it, in particular a couple of scenes that were particularly upsetting. Spoilers ahead for the whole movie, because the ending is one of those two scenes so there’s not really any way to avoid it.
If you’re unfamiliar with it, Rain Man is a 1988 movie starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Cruise plays a self-absorbed businessman (Charlie) who finds out when his father dies that he has a brother, an autistic savant named Raymond who has been kept secret and living in an institution most of his life. Charlie acts like a total jerk through most of the movie, uses the r-word as well as other ableist insults a lot, and attempts to use Raymond to get rich in a variety of ways. But they bond and he becomes less awful, eventually deciding he really does want Raymond to live with him so they can spend more time together. For some reason the movie doesn’t go that way, and Raymond is sent back to the institution. Sigh.
I also can’t decide how I feel about the portrayal of autism. The character of Raymond was based on two savants with other conditions, not autistic people. Likewise, I’ve found sources indicating that Dustin Hoffman spent time with savants, but haven’t seen anything to suggest he spent any time with autistic people to prepare for the role. So that’s obviously disappointing. That said, I can see some commonly known autistic traits, if possibly a little overdone and stereotypical. It’s close enough that I can understand what they’re going for and relate to the character. And while there are a lot of comments dismissing his humanity and agency throughout the film, I think Hoffman does a good job of playing a relatable character that clearly doesn’t fit the image everyone seems to have of him. So…could be worse?
Problem Scene 1
In the beginning, Charlie gets impatient and dismissive whenever Raymond tries to explain anything. He calls him names and yells at him and is just generally a terrible, terrible person. At one point, he makes a very telling statement in terms of how a lot of people view autism. In the middle of an argument where Charlie can’t understand why it should matter where Raymond shops, he shouts “I think this autism is a bunch of shit! Because you can’t tell me you’re not in there somewhere!” Ouch.
Autistic kids are often described as being “missing” or “taken” from their parents by autism. In other words, the parents think their child is someone other than the person they actually have in front of them. I guess this is what leads some people to go to dangerous lengths to search for a cure, meanwhile ignoring and dehumanizing the child right in front of them just wanting to be loved and accepted.
But autism is part of who we are. By definition autism is a difference in the way our brains work, and our mannerisms and opinions and identity are in our brain. You can’t separate a person from autism. It’s not like a curtain hiding a neurotypical person behind it, it’s a major factor in our personality.
This statement was incredibly upsetting to me because it shed light on how a lot of parents and teachers really feel about autistic people, including ones in their care. I hadn’t really thought of it before in those terms, didn’t understand the idea of autism “taking” kids at all, but when I heard this everything clicked. They really don’t think this person in front of them is their child, autism means they don’t know if there is even a person “in there.”
But he is “in there.” In fact, he’s right in front of Charlie the whole time. He’s very clearly communicating his needs and opinions throughout the movie. The problem is that Charlie’s not interested in listening unless it can be done on his terms. He can’t see Raymond as a full person unless he looks and acts just like everybody else. And since this apparently hasn’t changed for a lot of people, I’m very concerned both for the children in this situation and the future of autistic people in general.
Problem Scene 2
Earlier in the movie, we find out that Raymond was sent away because their father was afraid he would make a mistake and hurt Charlie. Before that, it seems that Raymond and Charlie were close and Raymond was a very attentive and caring brother. He’s specifically described as “high functioning” in the film, and while I don’t like functioning labels in general, that and his capabilities as shown in the movie make it seem he could almost certainly be working and living on his own if he was given the option. Possibly with the help of a part-time support worker at the most, people to help him get around and manage money.
Raymond just isn’t given a lot of options. He’s sent to the institution against his will when he’s too young to understand, and he spends his life there cut off from the rest of the world. He never has the chance to try and adapt to society, see if he wants to be a part of it. Given the way he reacts in the “hot water” scene, I don’t think being sent from his home is something he would have chosen. But it’s what was chosen for him, so at this point in his life it’s what he knows.
Walbrook (the institution) means structure and his own space and some measure of independence. At the same time, it means forced isolation and limited choices for experiences and activities. Going with Charlie means family and freedom and new experiences, but it also means loud noises and unpredictability and people who don’t understand him. Obviously, the decision to spend the rest of his life with only one or the other is not a simple one. When facing a life-changing decision like that, most people would want (and be allowed) at least a few minutes to think about it and weigh their options, maybe even a few days to consider it in depth and look for more information on it. Seems like a pretty reasonable expectation.
With this in mind, the scene where they try to determine whether or not Raymond is capable of making this sort of decision is particularly distressing. Asked to make a life-changing decision between two things that both come with strong negatives and positives, not only is he expected to give an answer within seconds, he’s expected to do so while being badgered by the person asking the question. It’s a painful scene to watch, and frustrating that Charlie doesn’t do more to advocate his brother and point out the unfairness of this “test.” And that he didn’t discuss the issue with Raymond before the meeting so he would be prepared and they could work out what would be necessary for Raymond to feel more comfortable living with or near Charlie.
I think it’s supposed to be clear that they make the wrong decision. It’s hard to tell. Charlie doesn’t challenge the decision at all, just promises to visit. The film doesn’t seem to make any sort of clear judgment about it. On the other hand, I have seen films where someone wants to take care of another person (or more often, animal…which is more or less how Raymond is treated here) and realizes they can’t provide for their needs so it’s better to say goodbye, and that doesn’t happen here. It seems more like Charlie just realizes he’s not likely to win and he doesn’t want to put Raymond through any more of this hurtful and dehumanizing treatment, even if the alternative is leaving him with people who believe he’s incapable of love or independent thought. He does clearly state his opinion that they don’t give Raymond enough credit and that he’s capable of connecting with other people and making his own decisions. It’s just unfortunate in my mind that the film doesn’t ultimately let Raymond express those things himself and gain true independence. Really could have used a happy ending here.