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Time Out of Mind

September 18, 2015
Time Out of Mind

Heading into prestige season, message movies are everywhere. The messages themselves most often come through the writing, or sometimes in a strong, often intense performance that highlights and humanizes the experience of a central character we might otherwise not empathize with. They tend to play like film adaptations of long-form journalism, building an issue story around a personal story, but one that would come off pretty much the same if you read it in the Sunday newspaper.

Time Out of Mind is something different. Yes, Richard Gere does a fantastic job, but the genius here is how the look and feel of the movie reflect the ideas in ways the words can’t quite reach. There may be a lot of message or issue stories, but this one is essentially cinematic, and alive as few films manage to be.

Credit here goes to director Oren Moverman, who also wrote the script from the germ of a story Gere had been carrying around for decades, and also to cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. They shoot this measured tale of a homeless man in New York City always keeping one theme clearly in mind: that homelessness is about separation, disappearance, and anonymity.

We catch up with Gere’s character sleeping in a bathtub. He’d been crashing with someone for a while — the last in a string of women he’d convinced to let him stay in their apartments — until she was evicted and fled town without mentioning it to him. After he gets rousted out, he’s now living on the street. It may be for the first time; it’s hard to tell. He may or may not quite remember, and nobody else seems to care. It’s forty minutes into the two-hour film that we hear his last name, and another thirty before we hear his first: George.

The usual way to go here would be to keep the focus resolutely on George himself. “People are so used to ignoring the homeless,” the argument runs, “that we need to make them look and see this person clearly.” Moverman goes in the opposite direction. George is in pretty much every scene, but it can be difficult to find him. Moverman repeatedly shoves him off to the side, or the background, letting other subjects dominate the frame in his place, making him a supporting character in his own movie.

When George is clearly visible and in-focus, he’s usually presented in a claustrophobic closeup, with nobody else to share his space. And when he’s included in a two-shot, there’s always something — a post, or a tree, or a window-frame — separating him from other people. Bukowski shoots him from behind obstacles, through windows and fences and crowds. It creates even more isolating framings, cutting George off from the people around him, and it provides even more obstructions to our view.

Even the poster is a great example of this approach. We see George, but hazily, behind a foggy, rainy sheet of glass. The color is mostly washed out, but a few arbitrary notes like the yellow cab pop out. It’s distracting and disorienting as it constantly draws our eyes away from the figure right in front of us.

The one person George seems to connect with is Dixon (Ben Vereen), another homeless man he meets in the shelter. Dixon is as garrulous as George is taciturn, rambling on and on about whatever crosses his mind. Regular folks ignore him. George tries to, but is either too polite or too closed in on himself to push Dixon away most of the time. But it’s ultimately through Dixon that George’s own frozen mind begins to thaw, and his mental ice dams begin to break up.

Time Out of Mind plays out slowly, demanding patience and some effort for its audience. It doesn’t call attention to itself with bombast and righteous indignation. But in its sad, retreating calm it captures something essential about what it means to be cut off from the rest of a community, and how debilitating that experience can be.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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