At once formally audacious and emotionally direct, Oren Moverman’s exquisite new film Time Out of Mind is a bold and challenging work, a movie that dares to explore a subject so often swept to the side in our society (our nation’s homeless), while simultaneously acting as an impassioned plea to help those who are suffering the consequences of mental illness. This is a work that couldn’t feel timelier if it tried, and while it wasn’t made to point fingers or to offer up solutions, it’s a fairly monumental piece of work in that it strives to tell an inherently compelling story about something that could seemingly happen to anyone, set against a depressingly bleak back-drop, going to some areas that many people might find too upsetting or too believable for comfort. Starring an unforgettable Richard Gere as a man reduced to a ghost of his former self, Time Out of Mind reveals its stylistic hand and narrative intent quickly and immediately: This is a purposefully slow-moving, deeply introspective piece that isn’t looking to have everything (or anything) solved with a tidy bow by its conclusion, told in a slightly oblique manner, essentially conveying mood and story through visuals and sounds. Bobby Bukowski’s startling widescreen cinematography is some of the absolute best I’ve seen all year, and it’s because the aesthetic and the content feel so attuned to each other that this demanding and unconventional piece of cinema works as effectively as it does. Almost the entire piece was shot at a remove from the actors, with the camera peering through windows and glass, as reflections and lights and colors smear and streak off the actor’s broken faces. This impressionistic quality gives the film a dreamy (nightmarish?) atmosphere that has the potential to cast a spell on the viewer. And then there’s the fully immersive sound-work, recalling Kenneth Lonergan’s obscenely underrated Margaret and the collective works of Altman, where background noise from an entire city fills the soundscape, with the conversations of strangers fully audible, thus creating an sonic mosaic effect that melds perfectly with the stylishly off-kilter visuals and heightened color palette. I’m always fascinated by filmmakers and technicians who can communicate their ideas on a visual level first and foremost, and in Time Out of Mind, at least an hour passes before any sort of background information is organically doled out, leaving the viewer to fill in some gaps on their own, while deciding what is and what’s not important to wonder about.
All you need to know about the “plot” of this film is that Gere is a homeless man, navigating the uncertain streets of NYC, bouncing from homeless shelters to park benches to churches, looking for any way to nab that next six-pack of beer, while trying to put some of the pieces of his past life back together. He’s got a bartender daughter (an effective Jena Malone) that he’d love to re-connect with, but in his heart of hearts, he knows he has a lot to make up for before he’s going to find any personal or familial solace. And then there’s his chance encounter with another homeless man, played by a nearly unrecognizable Ben Vereen, who is a literal motor-mouth of mentally broken fragments. The scenes between Gere and Vereen have a caustic edge to them, with tenderness slipping through the cracks now and again (that scene at the piano…). There’s nothing “Hollywood” about this movie, and even if the final moments HINT at something upbeat or potentially cathartic, Moverman is too smart of a filmmaker to reduce his powerful, incredibly intense film into something with phony sentimentality. And I loved how the film opened and closed in the same stylistic manner, reflecting the day-after-day quality that the narrative stresses at almost every turn. Moverman has been a serious and thought provoking filmmaker in the past, having co-written Todd Haynes’ trippy ode to Bob Dylan I’m Not There, and this year’s excellent Beach Boys/Brian Wilson examination Love & Mercy, as well as writing and directing the one-two-gut-punch of The Messenger and Rampart, both starring the utterly magnetic Woody Harrelson. Moverman’s strengths have been his driving sense of character and intelligence, always looking for an interesting angle to approach his subject matter, never content to settle for formula or easily digestible themes and narratives. This is the sort of mentality that I look for when searching for filmmakers to explore, as I’m constantly finding that I’m drawn more and more to projects that can’t easily be summed up by a logline, or that stress distinct and form-pushing artistic qualities rather than the demand to create sequels and merchandise and a hit soundtrack. Time Out of Mind is an art film that will be a very tough sit for some, but exactly the sort of filmmaking and storytelling that film lovers should be celebrating.