Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind wants to boost our awareness of the homeless and make us think about the way that homelessness can erode a person’s sense of worth and make him feel invisible. Throughout, we simply walk a few miles in the shoes of George (Richard Gere), a New Yorker who’s just lost the last of a series of tenuous perches. The film isn’t preachy, but its indie-movie artiness sometimes get in the way of its noble mission, making us think more about the techniques being used than the effects they’re meant to create.
When he shot On the Bowery in 1956, Lionel Rogosin achieved a remarkable sense of realism in part by casting homeless people—including the lead actor, Ray Salyer—as thinly fictionalized versions of themselves. Moverman and Gere, who brought this project to the director, are doing something more conventional here, casting well-known actors as homeless people. The audience’s relationship with these performers may encourage identification with and empathy for the characters they play, but it also creates some distance from those characters, at least initially. When we spot Ben Vereen as the compulsively chatty homeless man who attaches himself to George, or Kyra Sedgewick as one of George’s “lady friends,” or, most of all, Gere himself as George, we have to do a little mental gymnastics, accepting a celebrity as someone who’s overlooked or literally unseen by the busy hordes passing by. The actors are all good enough to overcome that handicap with time (Gere does a particularly fine job, radiating a quiet intensity befitting a man who feels things deeply, but has trouble thinking clearly and is prone to lapses he calls “losing time”), but every time we see another famous face, we have to go through that mental recalibration.
Gere is usually shot by a stationary camera that’s quite far from the action, and he’s often framed by a door or window that places a piece of dirty or reflection-heavy glass between us and him. That technique, which Moverman has said that he and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski took from Saul Leiter’s photographs and conceptualized as “a series of postcards,” ensures that we always see George in the context of the bustling city at the same time that he’s almost always profoundly alone. But sometimes, as in a shot of George bathed by a beam of white light in Grand Central Station while people rush by in all directions, this technique draws so much attention to itself that it distances us from George rather than drawing us closer, making him seem less like a real person than a model posing for a tableau.
The extremely slow pace that felt a little mannered in Moverman’s The Messenger works well here, rhyming with George’s generally unscheduled existence and unusual relationship to time. The soundtrack brings the city alive, using ambient sound that includes frequent snippets of the overhead conversations New Yorkers are constantly privy to. The scenes in the shelter system, most shot in Bellevue, feel accurate too, with the bright fluorescent lights, the constant coughing and occasional eruptions of anger in the background, the early wake-up calls, and the shower George luxuriates in—until the next man in line barks at him to hurry up. In the end, the filmmakers succeed far more often than they fail, conveying a sense of the existential crisis George faces after losing everything—friends, family, job, home—that once grounded and defined him, in his own eyes as well as those of the people around him.