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Time Out of Mind
by Jordan Canahai
At a time when so much of our entertainment is aggressively in your face, subtlety is a rare commodity in commercial filmmaking. But what happens when a filmmaker’s attempts at subtlety becomes overbearing itself? Time Out of Mind, the newest drama from director Oren Moverman (The Messenger), starts with a subtle enough bait-and-switch: a familiar opening shot of the New York skyline is held just long enough for viewers to see that a much wider foreground of run-down blocks and tenement buildings is filling the screen. The glamour of New York is instantly stripped away, along with our expectations, when we first encounter our confused, homeless protagonist Hammond (Richard Gere, perhaps the most handsome bum in movie history). He’s lying in a bathtub in a crummy apartment, being woken by the buildings new owner (Steve Buscemi, the first of many extended cameos from well-known actors in the film). Little by little we piece together his circumstances. He has an estranged daughter (Jena Malone), and seems to suffer from alcoholism and mental illness, unable to remember chunks of his life that might help him escape his circumstances.
What Time Out of Mind does best is to illustrate the constant anguish and general feeling of impotency that a homeless person in New York City lives with on a daily basis. We see Hammond freezing after pawning his coat for booze, fighting with other homeless for a spot in line at a shelter, having shoes thrown at him as he tries to sleep on a park bench, his difficult interactions with various Emergency Room orderlies and others. None of this is especially new or groundbreaking but Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski capture such moments with a photojournalist’s eye. Unfortunately, this very approach is also limiting for what Time Out of Mind is able to accomplish. The film manages to do both too much and not enough. There are too many moments of Hammond being shot through glass surfaces from a distance, ignored by his city, as well as close-ups of the left-side of his head displaying a painful looking brain-surgery scar, and not enough moments of genuine character development and insight.
Gere’s willingness to forgo his movie star persona and image while delivering an understated performance containing few false notes is certainly commendable. He does impressive work particularly in scenes with fellow homeless person Dixon (played by renowned musical theater entertainer Ben Vereen in the best and most believable of the film’s performances). By the same token, however, he’s never really able to create a fully rounded, three dimensional character in Hammond. The film’s screenplay (written by Moverman and Jeffrey Caine) much like Gere’s acting, is subtle to the point of nondescript and is defined entirely by a refusal to reveal anything about our central subject at all, until one realizes that is because there is nothing to reveal. Moverman’s approach and constant use of the glass framing device is employed to show the distance of its homeless subject from the eyes of the city around him, but shouldn’t the purpose of the film, which seeks to address the problem of the New York homeless, be instead to remove those barriers and let us see the struggle from within? Instead, Time Out of Mind ultimately proves to be a story in which the distance between the audience and its subject is just as great at the end as it is at the beginning.
Watch the trailer for Time Out of Mind
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