52nd New York Film Festival Review: ‘Time Out of Mind’

Directed by Oren Moverman.
Written by Jeffrey Caine (story) & Oren Moverman (screenplay, story)
Starring Richard Gere, Jena Malone & Ben Vereen

Now Playing at the 52nd New York Film Festival

Oren Moverman’s ambitious ‘Time Out of Mind’ eschews a straightforward narrative with forward momentum, instead functioning as an evocative sensory experience and vivid portrait of homelessness in 21st-century urban America. Moverman and star Richard Gere shine a spotlight on a powerless faction of society that needs help, yet causes most to avert their eyes. Time Out of Mind threads a delicate needle, offering a sharp critique of our society’s systemic failings at dealing with homelessness, while avoiding the trap of being overly judgmental or didactic. The film isn’t always as accessible or emotionally wrenching as it wants to be, but Moverman’s greatest achievement here is his ability to evoke palpable despair and confront viewers with a unique, suffering subculture right under our noses.

As the film begins, drunken vagrant George (Gere) finds himself booted from his squatter’s lair onto the cold streets of Manhattan. George scrambles to find food, shelter, and booze, while the audience gets to know him as a broken man so worn through by alcoholism, mental illness, and life that the sharpest tool left at his disposal is a finely honed sense of self-pity. Yet George cuts such a sad, tortured, pathetic figure, thanks in no small part to Gere’s effective performance, that viewers can’t help but sympathize with him and root for him to find some way out of the morass.

George does some light stalking to get the attention of his estranged daughter Maggie (Jena Malone), a bartender, but she rebuffs him, long since fed up with his act. Moreover, Maggie hasn’t forgiven him for his failures as a father and for past sins that remain unspoken, presumably related to his drinking and deteriorating mental state. Desperate and with nowhere to turn, George checks himself into Bellevue, Manhattan’s famous shelter for homeless men.

From here, Moverman gives us an inside look at the system, taking an even-handed approach that acknowledges both its successes and failings. On the one hand, homeless men willing and able to follow the shelter’s rules are provided with meal vouchers, a locker for their belongings, psychiatric treatment, a clean bed, warm blankets, and a nightly place to lay their heads. On the other hand, for access to these benefits, George and others are forced to jump through endless bureaucratic hoops and answer degrading questions about their personal lives. In addition, the shelter is quick to expel those who violate its strict curfew and rules of conduct. The film acknowledges the good intentions and occasional successes of the system, while pointing out just how many individuals fall through the cracks, unable to navigate bureaucratic landmines or follow rules, due to the same personal problems that led them to homelessness in the first place.

George is befriended by loquacious homeless man, Dixon (Ben Vereen), who shows him the ropes of the system and helps him navigate the local terrain. Dixon tries to help George get on welfare, a seemingly simple task, which turns into an epic saga of bureaucracy. George finds that he has essentially been removed from the system, lacking a valid social security, birth certificate, I.D., proof of residence, or credit card statement to verify his identity or existence. George’s fight to attain these basic documents is, in essence, a fight for his right to exist and be acknowledged as a human being. The rest of the film follows George’s attempts to reclaim his identity, secure his future, and repair the breach with his daughter.

In “Time out of Mind,” Moverman has put a face on homelessness: Richard Gere’s. If that sounds a tad derisive, it both is and isn’t. On the one hand, Gere gives a truly excellent performance, conveying and evoking a ton of emotion from a character about whom very few details are provided. And without giving too much away, Gere really knocks the film’s final, hauntingly ambiguous scene out of the park. However . . . there’s no getting around the fact that despite George’s hard life and miserable, destitute existence, he’s somehow maintained his movie-star good looks. The costume and makeup department have grunged George up a bit with some stubble and dirty clothes, but ultimately he still looks like Richard Gere. No doubt this is how George manages to get himself laid in this tale of otherwise abject poverty and despair. The reality is there aren’t too many Adonis, playboy homeless men wandering around New York. It’s distracting.

Though George is easy to sympathize with due to his terrible situation, Gere’s strong performance, and Moverman’s vivid direction, he’s also not the most accessible or relatable character, which makes him difficult to empathize with and mutes the film’s emotional impact. Gere evokes a palpable sense of weariness and desperation, yet George is taciturn, and what little he does say tends to be gruff and borderline unintelligible, filtered through calcified layers of mental illness and alcoholism. In addition, viewers are never given deep insight into what brought George to this point, just like they’re never told what he did to drive his daughter away. A few flashbacks to the person George used to be might have drawn both the character and his relationship with Maggie into sharper focus. But ultimately “Time out of Mind” isn’t really about traditional characters, narrative, and drama, so much as it’s a slice of life that immerses viewers in the homeless experience.

Jenna Malone does good work playing Maggie’s anger, pain, and inner conflict, while Ben Vereen’s charismatic turn as chatterbox Dixon offers an excellent contrast to Gere’s terse, sullen demeanor. But Gere’s true costar is Moverman’s camera. Moverman frames George in tight, shallow focus shots that blur the background behind him. With a couple exceptions (like Maggie and Dixon), other characters’ faces are rarely seen, leaving George as the sole object of focus. In framing shots this way, Moverman forces audiences to confront homelessness, providing no other visual stimuli to look at, denying viewers the option of averting their eyes or pretending the desperate man in front of them doesn’t exist. The blurred background also puts viewers inside George’s mentally hazy, alcohol-numbed perspective. In lieu of vivid images, George is surrounded by the swirling ambient sounds of the city, which Moverman has amped up here, creating the effect of a constant hangover, while conveying just how small and swallowed up someone like George is in the vast sea of voices, stories, and people that populate New York every day. The film’s emotional notes don’t always land, yet “Time out of Mind”is an evocative, meaningful experience: It illuminates a largely abandoned subculture that has too long remained in the dark.

Jason Teich

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