If you believe one of film’s most important social objectives is to foster empathy – to allow the audience to walk in the shoes of someone they never would get to know in real life – then it is hard to dislike a film about homelessness. The homeless remain the most invisible members of our society, and film provides a unique opportunity to raise awareness about a vital social issue that many of us spend a good part of their day willfully ignoring.
Oren Moverman is just the kind of socially-conscious director who could make a great film about the subject. The Messenger was one of the best post-9/11 films about the military, while the little-seen Rampart dug deep and dark into police corruption. His indie aesthetic and emotionally raw approach to character should have worked for Time Out of Mind, but the film is sunk by its inability to provide anything new to our understanding of the issue, as well as one particularly misguided casting choice.
When we first meet George (Richard Gere), he is sleeping in the bathtub of an apartment of a woman he knows. Either that, or he may be squatting there. We never quite know because George is an unreliable narrator, a severe alcoholic who may also be suffering from some sort of mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder. With only a small bag of clothes to his name, he is thrust into a cold New York City winter, where he begins to navigate the complicated bureaucracy of homeless shelters and government assistance, while sporadically trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Jena Malone).
The film relies heavily on Gere’s performance (the actor is in every single scene), and while he recedes into the character as much as possible, the disconnect between George and the type of characters Gere usually plays is too much to overcome. As he has approached and landed firmly in middle-age, Gere has thrived on characters that are defined by wealth and privilege (Pretty Woman, Primal Fear, Chicago, Arbitrage). Moverman clearly needed a movie star in the role (if frequent collaborator Woody Harrelson was his first choice, it would have been a better one), and perhaps he justified the casting by hoping that our association with Gere and privilege would further accentuate his descent into poverty. It actually has the opposite effect. A transformative actor could use our expectations to his advantage, but Gere never comes off as more than an actor researching a role on homelessness.
It is a shame because so much of the rest of the movie is done right. Ben Vereen is spectacular as Dixon, a friend George makes in the shelter who claims to be a former jazz musician. The two are described by an onlooker as being like “an old married couple,” and the shoe fits: George only speaks when he has to (his performance at times resembles Robert Redford’s in last year’s All is Lost), while Dixon’s mouth is constantly moving, ostensibly schooling George in how to survive on the streets, but really just talking as a compulsion. It is a contrast in approaches to their predicament. George is keeping a low profile, even to himself, while Dixon embraces his identity before others can label him.
And while both performances inspire empathy, Moverman’s true purpose is to remind us of the distance we create between the audience and his subject. To achieve this, he often shoots George from behind glass – windows, apartment building doors, or storefronts – evoking the way we usually watch the homeless. We see them, but we never let ourselves get too close, and they end up occupying a physical and geographical reality far different from ours. Time Out of Mind was shot in Manhattan, but it’s not the New York most of us know. The specific characteristics of the bars, parks, and convenience stores that George frequents are fuzzy, fading into the background in favor of their pure utility. George doesn’t care what bar he is going to; all he cares about is that he’s getting a drink.
If the goal of Time Out of Mind is simply to illuminate some previously unseen realities of homelessness, then it succeeds in the most prosaic way possible. Yes, we walk for a couple of hours in the shoes of a man whose path we would hope to never know, but we do not come any closer to understanding him or how he arrived there in the first place. It is a sparse, minimalist tale of poverty and mental illness that hits all the expected notes, but you may leave the theater still searching for the tune.