Shifting gears

It’s hard to get Gere out of your mind in "Time Out of Mind."

‘Time Out of Mind’ movie (photo credit: PR)
‘Time Out of Mind’ movie
(photo credit: PR)
If you’re going to see a movie about a mentally ill homeless man wandering the streets of New York City, you might as well watch one where the man is played by Richard Gere.
There are several challenges facing viewers of Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind, the first of which is forgetting that the central character, George Hammond, is played by Richard Gere. It’s not that Gere doesn’t give a good performance, but his movie-star aura radiates, no matter how poorly dressed he is. And, as we all know, he looks great with a bit of stubble. It’s hard not to wait with anticipation for the moment that he will get help, not only because you hope for redemption for the character but also because ever since he donned an Armani suit in American Gigolo in 1980, no actor has ever worn clothes better.
But while Gere’s presence is distracting, he is there for a reason. I imagine that Israeli- American writer/director Oren Moverman, who directed the movie The Messenger and wrote the screenplays for more than 10 acclaimed films, among them Love & Mercy and I’m Not There, needed a star of Gere’s stature to get financing for a serious movie about homelessness.
The story is told through George’s eyes. The movie is photographed from odd angles, often through doors and windows, which suggests how overwhelmed George is by all the visual stimuli of the city, and several conversations often run at once on the soundtrack. These techniques do not make it an easy film to watch, but they are very cinematically effective and suggest George’s confused state of mind better than any dialogue could.
The film opens as George is thrown out of an empty apartment where he has been sleeping in the bathtub. George wanders the city, buying beer whenever he has cash, sleeping on benches and the subway, and occasionally standing near a hipster bar (I imagine it’s in Brooklyn), where his daughter, Maggie (Jena Malone, who is extraordinarily good in her few scenes), works as a bartender. Once in a while, he speaks to her, but she is barely civil and doesn’t want anything to do with him. She has been hurt and abandoned by him one time too many.
Exhausted, he joins the line for a men’s shelter and starts sleeping there. Another homeless man, Dixon (an unrecognizable Ben Vereen), gloms onto him, and the two begin trudging through the city together. While George can barely say anything, Dixon, a former jazz musician, can’t shut up, and as he questions George, gradually pieces of George’s story emerge. He was once married and had a job, but he lost the job and divorced. His ex-wife died from breast cancer, and his daughter was raised by her grandmother. An entire decade is a blank to him. In recent years, he has depended on the kindness of female strangers, but now there is no one left who will help him.
George’s problem, more than the loss of a job or his wife, or even his lack of money, is his disorientation.
Clearly, he has some kind of mental illness, dementia from alcoholism or a combination of both. He no longer has the skills or the motivation to complete the most basic tasks that will change his life for the better, such as getting a new copy of his birth certificate so he can receive welfare and social security.
This movie will be too slow and heavy-handed for many viewers, but it does bring you into the world of a homeless person as no other movie I can remember has done.
Social workers and policy makers talk about people falling between the cracks, and Time Out of Mind is the view from that space that the system isn’t built to get into. A person who demands services can receive them, while someone like George who barely knows where he is or what he should be doing is lost. But the director shines a light on him, so we can see what the people who pass him by on the street can’t.