George seeks refuge at Bellevue Hospital, a Manhattan intake center for homeless men, where his friendship with a fellow client helps him try to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter.
Films about homeless people are inherently compelling – it could happen to any one of us. What would it be like, to live off the cold, uninviting streets, to be both free of societal norms and a slave to deprivation? What does “home” mean, when you don’t have one? How would it feel, to be unnoticed, to know, with certainty, that nobody cares whether you live or die?
Classics, such as Terry Gilliam’s mythical “The Fisher King” and Satoshi Kon’s animated masterpiece “Tokyo Godfathers,” touched upon those subjects in ways that were both insightful and artistic. Oren Moverman’s deliberately paced “Time Out of Mind” comes closest so far to depicting that state of constant perplexity, brought on by desolation and a steady disassembling of one’s humanity, from its opening shot of a crummy apartment, to the extraordinarily sublime conclusion.
At its center is a career-defining performance from Richard Gere, an actor who’s displayed quite the range throughout his impressive filmography, but here reveals a side previously unseen in the notorious charmer. The stalwart’s long overdue for an Academy Award nomination, and he surely deserves one for “Time Out of Mind” – he’s absolutely mesmerizing.
The film begins in the aforementioned rundown New York apartment. The building manager (Steve Buscemi) discovers George (Richard Gere) in the bathtub. George mumbles about someone named ”Sheila” coming back (“She’s not gonna lie to me, I’m here with her, this is my home!”), but is assured that no one is coming back, and hurriedly ushered out, with nothing but a trash bag and a feeble suitcase to carry his few belongings. He later attempts to return to the building, with the same result – an action one could define as a symptom of insanity.
More traces and shades of George’s condition become apparent, as we follow him through the rainy, late-winter streets of the Big Apple. He has a large scar on the side of his head. He sleeps on benches. He sells his clothes off for booze. He swigs vodka out of the bottle and rests on cold asphalt. He watches a young barmaid from a distance (Jena Malone).
He sleeps in the waiting room of an unusually (for New York) empty ER, where a friendly nurse recommends a shelter for him. “Sheila is going to be worried sick, I better get back home,” he says absent-mindedly. The nurse’s kindness turns into discomfort the more they talk, and then another gentleman – not-so-politely – asks him to leave. He has to go through a bunch of bureaucratic paperwork to get a bed at a shelter. He strains the entire time, struggling to piece his life together, and the paperwork is just too much for him.
Everywhere George goes is alienating, numbingly inhumane – until, that is, an older homeless man, Dixon (Ben Vereen), brings a little substance and meaning to his life. Dixon claims to be a jazz musician, but can’t play (and by “can’t”, he means that he doesn’t allow himself to touch upon a remnant of a life he once led, a life that has since shattered into fragments he cannot reassemble). Dixon follows George around, both angry at the world and a kindred spirit.
One day George seems to recognize “Sheila”, who turns out to be another homeless woman, Karen, (Kyra Sedgwick). Karen has adapted to the streets, her strategy involving a copious amount of collected soda and beer cans. They make love. George ends up literally stripped – of his clothes, and down to man’s basic desires: warmth, shelter, food, water…contact.
“Time Out of Mind” is a portrayal of a man who’s hit rock bottom…and keeps falling. “I’m really no good right now,” he declares grievously at one point. He is torn, impatient, emotionally imbalanced (who wouldn’t be?), lost, regretful. A faint glimmer of damp hope propels him through his delusions, and a stubborn denial, a refusal to admit he needs medical help and that he is, in fact, homeless (“It’s temporary,” George resolutely states), out of pride and sophistication he must have once possessed.
It must be reiterated how magnificent Gere is. Appearing in pretty much every shot, he channels his established charisma into a delicate, devastatingly real performance. If the film has one flaw, it’s the choice not to reveal a little more backstory, which renders it a bit distant – but Gere’s warmth thaws the frigid portrayal of the city and brings much depth to the impenetrability of his character. Ben Veeren provides outstanding support (best line: “Okay, I’m a cartoon, at least I’m animated!”), turning a potentially cliched character into a tragic and complex figure.
Bobby Bukowski, Moverman’s cinematographer on both “The Messenger” and “Rampart,” supplements every shot with gloom and urban beauty, such as one of George standing by a shop-window, with a blurry-but-vivid yellow haze obscuring the right side of the screen, in stark contrast to the wet, monochrome despair of the left side. The duo’s decision to shoot mostly from inside or outside buildings, at a distance from George, pays off, directly isolating the viewer with shields of raindrop-covered glass, making the basic comforts of life seem that much more unattainable.
A lot of the dialogue is barely-audible, in resistance to most films’ crisp-clear soundtrack. This is real city noise, where distant murmurs intertwine with random ramblings and discussions. The technique further adds to New York being urgently, realistically represented.
If the film sounds like a total downer…well, it is. But one can’t expect all art to be optimistic and, you know, “happily-ever-after,” Gere and Moverman infuse the film with so much nuance, it’s more of a beautiful, existential painting – but also a meditation on the roots of homelessness, loneliness, friendship, forgiveness, and the humanity in us. It never for a moment resorts to sermonizing. “Time Out of Mind” is a poetic call to action, an ode to a city and its inhabitants, and a stellar showcase for the protagonist. Next time you look at a homeless person, you may just stop and wonder…
In select theaters and at the Premiere Cinemas 14 in Burleson October 16th