Like 2013’s Robert Redford stranded-at-sea drama All is Lost, Time Out of Mind features a near-silent performance from a classic movie star in a stripped-down, atmospheric indie about survival. In this case, the headliner is Richard Gere, sporting a scraggly gray beard, matching closely cropped hair, and an overcoat and scarf that seem to be perpetually pulled tight against his neck—save for when his character George sells those items for a few bucks at a local pawn shop. George is homeless, and writer-director Oren Moverman’s film charts his day-to-day with quiet, precise attentiveness; Moverman follows George as he sleeps on New York City benches, eats out of garbage cans, dozes in hospital waiting rooms, and spies on a young bartender, Maggie (Jena Malone), whom he then has a stranger give a series of photographs which bring her to tears.
From the pained look of longing and shame on George’s face as he watches Maggie from afar, it’s clear she’s his daughter, but for the better part of its first half, Time Out of Mind wholly ignores any semblance of a conventional plot. Instead, taking its cue from the more experimental works of Gus Van Sant (Gerry, Elephant and Last Days in particular), its primary interest is in fully inhabiting the same spaces as George. As he sits on park benches, or passes by shops as he slouches his way from nowhere to nowhere, Moverman focuses on the sounds swirling around George’s dazed, frazzled head—a cacophony of car horns, news radio broadcasts, construction work clatter, and the chitter-chatter of New York City’s bustling inhabitants, including its homeless and destitute souls.
By emphasizing this naturalistic soundscape, Moverman creates a powerful sense of time and place, even as he keeps virtually all details about his story oblique, including what year it is, why George is in this wretched state, and what happened between him and his daughter. The director is after something like a transportive sort of cinema, one that allows complete immersion in another person’s shoes. And for long stretches, Time Out of Mind proves so attuned to its protagonist’s haziness and his loud, busy, and yet lonely milieu that it proves a gripping example of experiential cinema.
With cinematographic compositions that confine George to the corner of the frame, or that capture him from behind dusty windows or iron bars, the film’s visuals ably convey the character’s isolation from both the world around him, and from himself. However, they do so with an increasingly grating look-at-me style that detracts from the material’s otherwise realistic atmosphere. That said, the director’s long, unbroken takes allow him to emphasize his actors’ performances, casting such a fixed gaze upon George as he moves hopelessly from street corner to homeless shelter to government office (along the way coming into contact with random people played, distractingly, by the likes of Steve Buscemi and Kyra Sedgwick) that they prompt intimate empathy for his plight, and suspense about his ultimate fate.
It’s Gere’s turn, however, that truly sells Time Out of Mind’s bare-bones conceit. With eyes that segue between clear and foggy at a moment’s notice, and with a standoff-ish comportment that seems born from some deep disgrace and misery, Gere embodies George as a wounded animal in a foreign land. Much of the film’s second half involves George trying to receive public assistance—an arduous trip down the bureaucratic rabbit hole that requires him first obtaining a birth certificate and social security card—and his encounters with various clerks and officials allow Gere to paint around the edges of his performance, coloring in his character’s emotional condition with furtive sideways glances or nervous licks of the lips. The longer he’s George, the less one sees Gere, until a heartrending final confrontation between George and Maggie, when the latter disappears altogether.
Still, Time Out of Mind’s highlight comes before that conclusion, during a waiting-room sequence featuring George and his shelter buddy-cum-sidekick Dixon, played with scratchy vivacity and underlying despondence by a great Ben Vereen. In it, Dixon prattles on and on about his former life as a jazz pianist, and then recounts a factoid he once heard about how, every two weeks, men generate enough sperm to impregnate the entire female population. It’s a small, offhand piece of information that speaks volumes about both individuals’ desire for recognition (as human beings), and more than that, for the virility, stature and power they’ve lost. And as he recounts it, Moverman’s camera remains trained on not only Vereen’s face, but on Gere’s as well as he listens to his friend’s blather, thereby affording us a prolonged opportunity to witness a great actor, with pinpoint precision, do something at once routine and yet transfixing: simply react.
Director: Oren Moverman
Writer: Oren Moverman
Starring: Richard Gere, Ben Vereen, Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, Kyra Sedgwick
Release Date: September 11, 2015