Cast: Richard Gere, Jena Malone, Ben Vereen, Kyra Sedgwick
Director: Oren Moverman
Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
In Oren Moverman's wonderful new film Time Out Of Mind, Richard Gere plays a homeless man on the streets of New York City trying to reconnect with his daughter (Jena Malone), while battling sleep deprivation, hunger, and mental instability. Even though that synopsis sounds like a superficial tale of a lost soul overcoming socioeconomic obstacles while striving for redemption, the beauty of Moverman's film is that, much like it's central character, it reaches inward rather than outward. Crucially, there's no generic uplift here, ala The Pursuit of Happiness or the melodramatic narrative constraints of something like The Soloist.
Rather, the film seeks to explore the aimless feeling of being homeless as well as the foggy mindset of someone who can't quite come to terms with their predicament . The film's largest hurdle is whether or not Moverman's daringly formal directorial choices distract from the ultimate messages he's trying to convey or deepen them. In some senses, the film is one huge high-wire act in which Gere's bewildered drifter is seen through refracted mirrors, windows, and narrow corridors; lost in a blur of bustling movement which cares little whether he lives or dies. It's a gamble that largely pays off thanks in large part to Gere's vanity-free performance as a deeply wounded, insecure man whose literally lost time. In one key scene, he asks a fellow street person "Am I homeless?", a question both egotistical and heartbreaking.
A bold cinematic experiment in the best sense of the word, Time Out Of Mind challenges the way we view the problem of homelessness and the actual human beings tossed aside by a system which keeps moving forward without them. Though Moverman's artful stylistic direction; lots of wide-shots, zoom lenses, and extremely long takes where bodies circle around Gere in a chaotic swirl, could be distracting from emotionally connecting to the story, it moves us further into the realm of sensitivity that a more conventional film would layer on with broad strokes. Gere's George is a character we've seen in a lot of movies; the kind of guy who at one point was perhaps too handsome and successful for his own good and whose love of alcohol and other vices led him into a gradual downward spiral. Of course, there's a past tragedy and the long estranged daughter who wants nothing to do with him as well; both tropes Hollywood films about homeless characters have beaten into a pathetic whimper. But Moverman and Gere refuse to give into easy impulses here; portraying George as a flawed, fully dimensional person who is simultaneously sympathetic and alienating. Much of the film is simply made up of long-held shots of Gere slowly zoning out, trying to fall asleep, panhandling, and swinging whisker from a paper bag. The all-encompassing sound design, which favors naturalism over post-production dubbing, also adds to the atmosphere of lived-in grittiness; with the lack of a traditional score forcing the audience, much like George, to become observers trapped inside a city where moment by moment, day by day, hope is being swallowed whole.
Of course, all is not hopeless, and Time Out Of Mind, despite the bleak subject matter, isn't an art-house piece of miserablism. Moverman is a humanist, and this is a deeply compassionate film, seen most obviously in key interactions George has with certain individuals around him; most notably, Ben Vereen as a chattering fellow homeless man who claims to be a great jazz musician. We've also seen this character in movies countless times before; the "crazy" guy on the street prattling on about personal experiences via societal diatribes, but rarely has a film given such a character actual room to breathe and grow organically. George's few moments with his daughter are also pitched just right, with Malone bringing world-weariness and real conviction to a part that could have been rote. There is also a moment of possible hope near the end that feels both intrinsic to the arc of George's character as well as a natural progression of his situation. It also feels earned in a way that a Hollywood picture with a similar ending probably would not. This is not a cheap push for emotional manipulation, but rather, a distillation of one person's arduous journey towards something approaching normality.
Time Out Of Mind is an important film, but it's importance lies in a contemplative approach to something that could have played as a political statement or theoretical essay on the issue of homelessness. This unhurried, fragmented aesthetic may alienate those looking for the kind of dramatic tension that this type of film seems to call out for. Of course, George's story doesn't need dramatic tension because dramatic tension doesn't exist in the world of someone living on the streets. Pure survival is all there is, and Moverman captures that struggle beautifully and without histrionics. And yet, we keep returning to Gere's face; weathered with age and yet still graceful, as he finally gives into the act of eating out of a trash can. This moment, crystalized in a single take, is emblematic of Moverman's sincere attempt at capturing the existence of someone who has given up on himself, which also reflects a society at large that would rather throw away half a bagel then deal with the outstretched hand of a vagrant.