Time Out Of Mind

TIME OUT OF MIND  * * * 1 / 2

Starring Richard Gere, Ben Vereen, Jena Malone, Kyra Sedgwick and Steve Buscemi. Written and directed by Oren Moverman.

The man’s name is George Hammond, but we don’t find that out until almost halfway through the film.

From the start we recognize that he’s played by Richard Gere – his cocksure swagger beaten down into a lonely shuffle, that handsome squint gone to seed and flecked with abrasions, the silver mane of hair missing clumps revealing what looks to be a nasty surgical scar. George is homeless on the streets of New York City, though he claims to be “just in-between places at the moment.” It’s been this way for ten years, maybe more. He doesn’t talk much and isn’t very good at explaining how it all happened. George drifts through the film like a ghost, marginalized in backgrounds or far corners of the frame in the very movie that’s supposed to be his story.

We see him mostly through windows, the camera stationed inside warm spaces like offices and coffee shops, catching oblique views of our protagonist as he roams the cold sidewalks. The soundtrack is full of day-to-day, overheard chatter and the glass that often separates us from George is filled with reflections of a world passing by, undisturbed. “We don’t exist,” he mutters at one particularly low point.

The journey of Time Out Of Mind – this mesmerizing and extremely moving new film from writer-director Oren Moverman – is twofold. On one level it’s about George reclaiming his name and his old life, learning where to ask for help and when to ask for forgiveness, to finally assert that he indeed exists.

Yet none of this is presented within the conventionally satisfying beats of your standard social-issue melodrama. In fact, I’m quickly discovering that Time Out Of Mind’s hard-boiled austerity has been a real deal-breaker for certain audiences. Gere’s aged into a fascinatingly recessive actor, finding a haunted stillness leagues beyond his youthful strut. But this also means he’s not always the easiest guy to warm up to, and the character of George hasn’t exactly been written to play upon our sympathy. He’s brusque and a little bit out of it, a pissy drunk working from a slowed-down time signature in which idle days run indistinguishably into one another.

I was captivated by these early, almost silent sequences and their dreamy languors, yet also a little relieved when the slight semblance of a plot kicks in around the forty-minute mark. At his wit’s end, George checks into a shelter, aghast to discover after all these years of hustling and squatting that New York City is required by law to provide him with a bed.

Moverman deftly guides us through an overtaxed social services system, and we meet the people — both kind and indifferent — who are here to help. He’s got a documentarian’s eye for detail yet doesn’t sacrifice the movie’s vivid expressionism.  We see the shelter through George’s eyes: a cacophony of hollering voices, intrusive questions, and grubby, institutionalized interiors. There’s also a shower and a warm bed.

And Gere’s finally got someone to play off, thanks to a scorchingly great performance from the legendary Ben Vereen. His Dixon is an old hand at the system, attempting to take George under his wing and show him the ropes. He never, ever stops talking. Vereen does at least a dozen breathtaking bebop verbal riffs that go here, there and everywhere and are constantly delightful even though he’s mostly full of shit. The gruff Gere keeps breaking, ever so slightly – working a Hackman-Pacino Scarecrow chemistry with Vereen, as our determined loner finally comes around to the guy who just won’t leave him alone. I really loved watching them together.

The rest of the film is mostly Dixon tagging along while George tries to reclaim his identity and qualify for benefits – easier said than done when you have no birth certificate, photo ID or social security card. It’s a byzantine bureaucracy and yet the process becomes stirring once you catch what Moverman is doing with the frame.

It takes awhile to notice, but as Time Out Of Mind goes on, Gere gradually emerges from the margins and begins to take center stage. The windows and reflective glass panes that cinematographer Bobby Bukowksi so meticulously arranged between us and the character fall away. When George can finally speak honestly for the first time with his estranged daughter (an excellent-as-always Jena Malone) it’s the first scene that’s shot like a regular movie, and the last scene of this one.

When I mentioned earlier that Time Out Of Mind’s journey was twofold, I meant that Moverman’s purposefully audacious directorial technique is, on a deeper level, trying to teach us how to look toward those backgrounds and into the corners of the frame of our own lives. Sure, you probably won’t see a famous movie star like Richard Gere in there. But chances are you’re looking past some people. They exist.

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