You probably don’t find yourself thinking, “Hey, I want to go watch a movie that shows me what it feels like to be homeless on the streets of New York.” That description wouldn’t pull me toward the theater, either. But Time Out of Mind is worth a look — a demanding but rewarding immersion in the sort of limbo that many of us in the 99 percent could easily slip into nowadays.
When we first meet George Hammond (Richard Gere), he’s in the bathtub, perfectly dry, completely dressed and deeply asleep. He’s roused awake by the building manager (Steve Buscemi, in a cameo), who’s there to clean up and repair this Queens apartment whose previous occupant has been evicted.
George says the place belongs to his friend Sheila, and she’ll be back soon. The manager says there’s no such person. He hustles George out of the building and onto the sidewalk. Which is where we stay for a good long while. George cadges some change from passersby, enough to buy a bottle of cheap hooch. In the subsequent days, we follow George as he buys more liquor, vaguely searches for Sheila, and slowly comes to grip with the ego-battering reality that he’s a man with no job, no official ID and no family.
Well, that’s not exactly true. He hovers on the periphery of a bar where Maggie (Jena Malone), a spiky young woman, pours drinks. She’s his daughter — biologically speaking, anyway. But her icy reaction when he walks through the door shows she thinks of him (or would prefer to) as a stranger.
As we ease along through the city with George, writer-director Oren Moverman (Rampart, The Messenger) makes some unusual decisions in the way he tells the story. The smartest one (and the most challenging for viewers) is to shoot many of the scenes in real time. No fancy cuts, just the prosaic rhythm of hardscrabble urban life and sleep-challenged nights. George is up-close-and-center sometimes, sometimes he’s just a face in the crowd that we have to pick out.
Just as the movie doesn’t resort to easy script manipulations or editing tricks, it forgoes a traditional soundtrack. There’s no score, just a nonstop wall of gray/white noise surrounding George — traffic bleats, tunes drifting out of radios, overheard cellphone conversations, people chatting as they walk down the street.
George is surrounded — pummeled — by talk. Well-meaning social service workers try to dig his story from him, homeless shelter guards tell him where to go and what to do. And halfway through the movie, a fellow drifter named Dixon (Ben Vereen , admirably avoiding any of his patented showbiz twinkle) attaches himself to George and holds forth unendingly on any topic that springs to mind.
Being on the receiving end of so much of other people’s talk and opinions, George comes to the epiphany, “I’m nobody — I don’t exist.” That’s the recognition that, just maybe, can set him back on the path of reclaiming his identity in the world.
Time Out of Mind is difficult to watch at times. The choice of still-movie-star-handsome Gere as its leading man is both interesting and odd. In resolutely deciding not to over-explain who George Hammond is, Time results in Gere delivering a performance that sometimes feels too vague. He’s never been an emotionally rich actor; his career has largely been one of surface, of attractive opaqueness.
While it’s admirable that Moverman doesn’t want to sentimentally categorize this character, Gere rarely suggests unscripted depths. Still, Time Out of Mind is a rare, intelligent gamble at a time when most every other movie is playing it loud, broad and safe.
Time Out of Mind. With Richard Gere, Ben Vereen, Jena Malone. Written and directed by Oren Moverman. Unrated. 120 minutes. At the Plaza.