There’s a heady question at the center of Oren Moverman‘s “Time Out Of Mind“: what is it that makes us real, to truly exist to those around us? This is not an existential question, but an inquiry into the values we place on those we choose to observe. Is government issued documentation proof enough to give someone services or acknowledgement? Or is it a job, which allows us to contribute to industry and society? Or maybe it’s a network of friends and family providing the net of humanity around us? George Hammond (Richard Gere) has none of these things, which makes him invisible, not only to the sprawling metropolis of New York City around him, but to himself.
And as the director told us in his interview, the visual approach employed here subtly transmits the distance the public often puts between themselves and the disadvantaged. The camera is frequently at a significant distance from George, observing him from afar and almost as if he were the test subject in an experiment. And when the camera moves in close, the way it frames George cuts the city away from his surroundings, almost as if he’s an alien in his own environment. It’s a sensation that’s ratcheted by the tremendous sound design. George has little to say, but when he does, it’s very difficult to articulate the torrent of needs and pain he’s feeling at any single moment. So he’s more inclined to not speak at all, but the buzz of the city — traffic, songs heard from outside bars, arguments, conversations, phone calls — overlap in layers, and yet the disconnect between George and the public, and vice versa, makes his solitude all the more palpable.
And while this may seem to add up to a polemic about how we treat the homeless, Moverman’s concerns are less political and more personal, and allow audiences to draw their own conclusions. However, it’s difficult to be unmoved watching George being processed through the shelter system, which at times feels almost like a benevolent prison. His utter astonishment that New York City must legally provide him a bed is a revelatory moment, leaving him in disbelief that after so many nights trying to find a place to rest, procedures are in place for his basic care. But it only goes so far. Taking the next steps — getting food stamps, housing, participating in programs — is made difficult for George not only because he’s been off the grid for so long, but also because his social security number, driver’s license and other official forms of ID have been stolen. Not only is he outside the system, he has to re-enter it, and as a broken man with limited means, it takes a heavy toll.
In a performance that will be mistakenly hailed as a transformation, it’s Gere’s immersion in the part that is remarkable. The symbiotic collaboration between Moverman and Gere is evidenced than the actor’s committed, subtle, and stoic turn. “Time Out Of Mind” is a film of tremendous patience and pace, as it wants you to inhabit every minute, day, hour and year of homelessness. But it’s through that considered approach that the reveal of George’s deep self-hatred and low self-esteem carries an extraordinary power; time has worn his sense of self to the point of despair that’s deeply moving. But it’s not all dour and dark for George. One of the warmer interludes in the film involves his friendship with the ever-chatty Dixon (a delightful Ben Vereen), who keeps up a constant flow of words as if to distract George. They are initially a bit of an oddball duo, but George allows him into his world… but like the lives of many on the street, Dixon just as soon disappears from his sphere, almost as soon as he enters.
Cameos from the likes of Steve Buscemi, Michael K. Williams and Kyra Sedgwick are not distractions, but instead function as additional texture to a world we seldom see on the big screen. Moverman and Gere have made a topical, “issues” based film because of its humanity. Since life isn’t tied up with a neat bow, neither does our time with George. [B+]