Richard Gere goes slumming in the streets of Manhattan and emerges with one of his more remarkable performances in “Time Out of Mind,” a haunting piece of urban poetry that further confirms Oren Moverman as a socially conscious filmmaker of rare conviction and authority. Executed in a plot-free observational mode that relatively few American independent filmmakers have attempted this side of early Ramin Bahrani, this simple story of a vagrant slowly grasping the depths of his despair is New York neorealism par excellence, bearing patient, resonant witness to the everyday trials and indignities suffered by America’s homeless population. Unfolding deliberately over the course of two hours, Moverman’s spare, soulful character study will prove a challenging sit for non-festival audiences, but couldn’t be more deserving of careful handling by an equally brave and uncompromising distributor.
In his 2009 debut, “The Messenger,” Moverman found a raw, mournful power in the plight of Middle American families who had lost servicemen to the Iraq War; he followed it in 2011 with “Rampart,” a gritty and visceral thriller about a corrupt Los Angeles cop. Joining its predecessors to form a loose trilogy on social woes across the U.S., “Time Out of Mind” represents a radical formal shift for the writer-director, conceived in a rigorous, unyielding style that feels closer to certain strains of European realist/minimalist cinema than to anything currently occupying American arthouse screens. For that reason, the film also represents a rare step backward in terms of commercial appeal, though it could attract viewers on the basis of Gere’s involvement alone (he also produced).
Although we don’t learn his name until later in the proceedings, the homeless man who’s onscreen for almost every minute is George Hammond (Gere), whom we first see awakening in a bathtub in an empty and dilapidated apartment, where he’s promptly thrown out by the building manager (Steve Buscemi, one of several pros, like Kyra Sedgwick, Michael K. Williams and Jeremy Strong, who blend seamlessly into these nondescript environs). Emerging into the harsh New York daylight sporting several days’ worth of scruff and a few unexplained forehead scratches, George has nowhere to go in particular, except in search of his next meal and place to sleep. He wanders the streets, rides the subway and lingers on park benches, occasionally popping into a nearby bar or laundromat to see a young woman named Maggie (Jena Malone). From the way she rebuffs his attempts, we almost immediately grasp that she’s his estranged daughter.
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We will return to Maggie in due course, but not until after George is left with no choice but to spend a couple of nights at Bellevue, the largest homeless shelter for men in Manhattan, where the film begins to simulate the look and texture of a Wiseman documentary. Moverman guides us through every step of the tediously long process of checking in and acquiring a bed for the night: the endless wait for George’s number to get called; the barrage of questions about his personal history in exchange for a meal voucher; and the noisy, disruptive altercations that frequently break out among the center’s mostly black population, some of whom don’t take too kindly to the presence of white men like George in their midst. Everyone here seems both isolated and imprisoned, not just the men looking for a place to shower and sleep, but also the jaded workers forced to shuttle people around in a clearly broken system.
“I’m just a fuck-up. Probably always was,” George says at one point, which is about as much as he’s able or willing to divulge about himself to his interrogators or the audience. In a manner that will seem uncannily accurate to anyone who’s spent time interacting with the homeless, George has a habit of either repeating himself absent-mindedly or seeming not to understand the simplest questions — a tic that doesn’t suggest memory loss so much as a curious form of evasion and denial. It’s the lie behind that “probably always was” that seems to fascinate Moverman, and it’s not until George finds himself in the company of an endlessly talkative fellow wanderer (wonderfully played by the stage and screen veteran Ben Vereen), who will neither shut up nor let his new comrade go, that he finds the courage to open up, briefly, about the life he once had and lost.
In that regard, the fact that we never fully forget we’re watching Richard Gere as a homeless man is no more problematic than the fact that we never quite forgot we were watching Robert Redford as a sailor in “All Is Lost,” to cite another recent feat of movie-star acting at its most stripped-to-the-bone. Indeed, that we’re so accustomed to perceiving Gere as the sleek, silver-haired man of business and privilege only serves to reinforce the idea that poverty is not strictly the realm of those who are born into it; watching George onscreen, you can’t help but imagine if this could be the future fate of the white-collar crook the actor played in “Arbitrage.” You also can’t help but wonder how many New Yorkers barged past the old guy begging for spare change, not realizing it was Gere underneath the black beanie and old coat, while Moverman and his crew secretly filmed from afar.
There is the occasional sly wink at the fact that this particular transient was once, in another life, America’s most potent male sex symbol (one social worker can’t resist referring to George as “Handsome”). Yet that good-looking face is now tired and careworn, attached to a body that has seen better, slimmer days. Gere gives a beautifully judged performance, plain and true, and one for which he appears to have purged every trace of actorly vanity or self-consciousness.
At once non-didactic and intensely political in its intimate snapshot of American poverty, “Time Out of Mind” is also a fascinating exercise in form, one that achieves its immersive effect by alternating between visual deprivation and aural overload. Bobby Bukowski, the versatile d.p. who lensed Moverman’s first two features, here favors purposefully disorienting, limited-vantage compositions that keep us from getting our bearings, and he’s fond of shooting Gere through windows and screens, conveying a sense of the character’s trapped state and the city’s many invisible layers. The soundtrack, meanwhile, continually seethes with the natural sounds of urban life, with traffic, fire-engine sirens and other people’s conversations forever spilling in from outside the frame; few recent films have so convincingly depicted the hell of not being able to sleep in silence.
The film is named after Bob Dylan’s 30th studio album — a fitting choice, considering Moverman and Gere met while working on Todd Haynes’ Dylan extravaganza “I’m Not There.” Which, come to think of it, would have made no less suitable a title.