Down and Out
by Julien Allen

Time Out of Mind
Dir. Oren Moverman, U.S., IFC

At a time when so much of our entertainment is blared out or neon-lit, subtlety is at a real premium in modern commercial filmmaking. It isn’t enough today to see a film in color—the colors have to reach out of the screen and grab you; synaptic response-times are supposedly shorter than ever, so studios operate with the risk that if the shock and awe stops, we might reach for our phones. So when Oren Moverman made The Messenger back in 2009 he was justly applauded for daring to approach the most in-your-face world event of recent times—the Iraq war—in an oblique, understated way: with a simple, plangent story of soldiers whose mission it is to announce the death of comrades to their families.

The problem with subtlety, though, is that it can become excessive: once you get going, it’s really hard to know when to stop. So for example in Time Out of Mind, when does the technique of filming your protagonist through glass (busy shop windows, monogrammed doors, smudged reception booths) stop being subtle? The ninetieth time you do it? Or what about the decision to film him in close-up from the left throughout the whole film, so that his precisely drawn brain surgery scar (never mentioned) is in constant view? And how long need you hold a shot of a hobo reading a newspaper with the headline “NO STOPPING DEATH” facing the camera?

The “glass” framing device implies the distance of its homeless subject from the eyes of the city around him. But isn’t the purpose of a film like Time Out Of Mind, which seeks to expose the predicament of the New York homeless, surely to peel those obstacles back and let us see inside? Yet the film’s use of the long lens device doesn't waver, as if the director wanted to make an aesthetic choice and stick to it (we can certainly admire the manifold images of New York’s own light and color, perpetually diffracted through glass in myriad shapes). It's a decision that ultimately fits a story where the distance between the audience and its subject is just as great at the end as it is at the beginning.

Oren Moverman’s film starts with a subtle enough bait-and-switch: a pointedly hackneyed opening shot of the New York skyline grabs the attention but is held just long enough for us to realize that a much wider foreground of pre-fab blocks and low-grade tenement buildings is in fact filling the screen. The glamour of New York is instantly stripped away, along with our expectations. When we first encounter Richard Gere’s confused, homeless protagonist Hammond, he’s lying in a bathtub in a dilapidated apartment, being woken from his slumbers by the familiar strains of Steve Buscemi—apparently the super—who has been tasked with clearing the place for reletting. Gere’s silver hair is cropped short (not An Officer and a Gentleman short, but two-finger length), he sports five-day stubble, and has had two small cuts lovingly placed by the makeup department below and above his right eye. He looks for all the world like a movie star lying in a bathtub.

Little by little we piece together his circumstances. He has a daughter (Jena Malone, a Moverman regular), but they are estranged. He had a lady friend (“Sheila,” who is never seen) but she has left him. More debilitating still—and the primary cause of his entrapment in a familiar vicious cycle—he is mentally ill and cannot remember key details of his life that might enable him to climb back up through the system and escape. Until then, he’s no more nor less than an unusually handsome bum.

What all this has to do with the 1997 Dylan album Time Out of Mind, not to mention the six other films recorded by imdb as possessing the same title, is anyone’s guess, but what the film does well—and which shouldn’t be easily dismissed—is to illustrate the daily, reiterative siege of a homeless person’s life in New York City: Gere pawning his coat for alcohol, then freezing; tramps fighting in the queue for the shelter; yobbos throwing shoes at him as he tries to sleep on a park bench; a combination of strict and lenient Emergency Room orderlies; general transparency in the face of the crowd. None of this is especially new or unfamiliar, but Moverman has chosen a particular strategic tack, namely making us witness all of this as it happens to Richard Gere. With very little to go on besides the actor’s identity, we can only assume that Gere’s character used to be comfortably off, and by all accounts was selfish and made mistakes, thereby alienating his family. In so doing Moverman compels a typical cinema audience to confront his plight from a more selfish perspective. The film seems to be saying: if it could happen to Richard Gere, it could happen to anyone, so be careful, because that includes you. Such a single purpose film lives and dies by the audience’s ability to relate—even in some small way—to its protagonist.

Gere’s performance, aggressively understated, is subtle to the point of nondescription. His character’s complexity is comprised entirely of a refusal to reveal anything at all, until it dawns on the viewer that this is because there is going to be nothing to reveal. In the image of the film itself, the scope of Gere’s performance is limited: it is not to explore, but merely to illustrate. It is this surface illustration of a predicament, as opposed to any attempt to uncover or examine the character’s psychology, which makes the film feel attenuated—and reduces Gere to a plastic figurine. Furthermore, the script plays up to his persona by having him attempt to seduce female nurses and social security employees, boast about his success with women and to, more than once, be referred to by those around him as “handsome” or “too handsome to be homeless.”

Even worse still, Gere appears not to have felt entirely constrained by this limited illustrative function, and instead is indulged on a couple of occasions by Moverman in incongruous moments of bravura acting, such as when he gets into an argument with his companion Dixon (the best and most believable character in the film, played by legendary musical theater entertainer Ben Vereen) and suddenly goes all Ratzo Rizzo. Gere's overall performance contains relatively few such false notes, but by the same token, he never once threatens to create a fully rounded character either, and the script wouldn’t let him if he could. As a result, likeable but slight love scenes with an almost unrecognizable Kyra Sedgwick, and a potentially moving sequence with Malone later in the film, arrive far too late. We’re left with shots of him catching a bite to eat in front of an out of focus Statue of Liberty, or loitering next to a “NO LOITERING” sign.

In the meantime, an actor of the caliber of Michael K. Williams is reduced to playing a shelter orderly (longest line: “Is this man bothering you?”), which might come as a disappointment to anyone in the audience who finds themselves imagining how much more engaging Time Out of Mind might be with Williams in a prominent role. And to seal the film with a crass flourish, after we’d abandoned hope of learning anything about what ultimately makes Gere’s character tick, he sits at a keyboard in a bar and
gives an extended performance of glorious jazz piano, which then serves to score a series of tableaux of the sun going down over New York. Given that we have already been manipulated to assume that his character “shouldn’t be homeless,” what this coup de théâtre is supposed to achieve besides a collective audience swoon is pretty unclear, but it’s likely to induce mild nausea in anyone looking for something more valuable in a film than an opportunity to love Richard Gere a little bit more.