The phrase “time out of mind” dates back to the late 15th century, so perhaps you’ve heard it in Shakespeare or seen it as the title of a Bob Dylan album. Roughly speaking, the phrase means “further back than anyone can remember,” but as the title of the new film from writer-director Owen Moverman (The Messenger), it also suggests mental dislocation. As it happens, mental dislocation is something of a requirement to fully appreciate Time Out of Mind. That’s because the film stars Richard Gere as a homeless man suffering from mental illness. And while it’s certainly possible that a homeless man suffering from mental illness might look like a slightly perturbed movie star who’s taken a couple of days off from shaving, Gere’s casting nevertheless distracts from the otherwise convincingly naturalistic urban landscape Moverman paints, of a Manhattan that hides away or willfully ignores its large homeless population.
In the film’s opening movement, George Hammond, gets ejected from the repossessed apartment where he’s been flopping, and finds himself adrift in Manhattan. That Gere plays him proves a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the casting makes a stealth statement about our perception of the homeless: namely, that it can happen to anyone, and that we shouldn’t limit our perception of the homeless to hoary stereotypes. On the other hand, Gere has hardly made a name for himself as a transformative actor, and our strong association of Gere with upper-crust men in tailored suits doesn’t exactly jibe with a man of such tenuous familial relations and absent personal and business connections. While such thinking may well be small-minded on the viewer’s part, Gere actively struggles to convey George’s indistinct mental illness, which sounds as if it might be a variant of schizophrenia or PTSD. The actor fares scarcely better at embodying the character’s fatigue and hunger, but he does make resonant George’s alcoholism, anger, and a breakdown that could, if Gere’s lucky, serve as an Oscar clip.
Moverman’s neorealist approach easily stokes sympathy and, at times, empathy for the plight of the homeless. Hammond’s movement around Manhattan and particularly its institutions (Bellevue Hospital chief among them) provokes thought as to what the city may be getting right and wrong in addressing a vexing social ill. Invariably, George finds himself subjected to a bouts of questions, and no matter where they fall on the scale of friendly to invasively skeptical, our mentally overtaxed, prideful hero wearies of the unwelcome attention and, as he usually sees it, empty-gestural sympathy.
On two occasions, George is asked, “Are you waiting for someone?”, and in a general sense, he is: for (female) ghosts of his past (an ex, his daughter) to return to him. Meanwhile, Moverman photographs this lost soul as if he's the background noise of the average urban dweller's life. We see George sitting on the pavement through the window of a shop as we listen to foregrounded bustle and customers' conversations. This visual poetry and the bureaucratic details elsewhere (like Manhattan’s sub-32-degree threshold for accommodating a maximum of homeless folks) tend to be more useful than the sometimes on-the-nose dialogue ("I'm homeless. I'm nobody. I don't exist!"). And so, though it’s hit and miss for audiences trying to forget Gere’s screen history, Moverman ably serves a slice of homeless life, dramatizing a problem we’ve contended with further back than we can remember.