George’s life sucks pretty bad – he’s drunk and sleeping in the bath for God’s sake, and there’s this guy Art, who looks a lot like Steve Buscemi... wait, it is Buscemi… Okay, let’s start again. When George’s ex-girlfriend, Sheila, is evicted from her run down New York walk-up, George gets left behind and it falls to Art to move him on. So begins Time Out of Mind, a thought-provoking freefall of a film starring Richard Gere as George, the homeless drunk who doesn’t really have a handle on anything, much less his life. Devoid of the usual dramaturgy and shot by Oren Moverman to look pretty much like a documentary, the story rolls forward organically, with the viewer as voyeur. Gere tells it like this, “I wanted it to work on various levels… and just let it breathe… as if you were sitting on a park bench just watching people walk by and not know anything about them, but just get them somehow.”
Gere is sixty-six now and has covered a lot of ground since his 1981 movie, An Officer and a Gentleman set female hearts all a-flutter. Still, he cuts an impressively gracious figure in a sharp suit and white shirt – a far cry from poor old George. In that respect Gere offers us an absolutely spot- performance. His portrayal of George isn’t just another drunken bum; it’s a minutely observed performance, complete with all the tics and mannerisms associated with a man who’s fallen off the edge of society. Although we never get much of his back story, by the end of the film we feel as if we’ve walked a thousand miles in his shoes.
Gere turned the original script down, even though he knew the territory – he’d worked with the Coalition for the Homeless, and with the City Harvest Charity. For one reason or another he just couldn’t give himself to the project. Time passed and the idea got under his skin to such an extent that he changed his mind and shelled out for the script. Still unhappy with how it read, he tried to rewrite it himself, but quickly realised he wasn’t good enough to pull it off. He wanted it to feel real – unwritten – like something the neo-realist filmmaker Robert Bresson might make.
At pretty much the same time Gere came across a book called In the Land of Lost Souls by a guy who goes by the name of Cadillac Man. Essentially, a narrative document of life on the street, Gere says the book was very much out of time and space. “It was just what happened in a kind of hard-boiled, very unsentimental kind of way… with no sense that the story was going in any particular direction. I knew that was the way to make the film.” In this respect, Israeli-American Oren Moverman, seemed like a natural choice as director. Gere had worked with him on I’m Not There, a film about Bob Dylan. Gere says, “Oren understands space. He doesn’t want to push things faster than they can be pushed.” All that remained was for Gere to introduce Moverman to Cadillac Man and for them to visit shelters and experience the world Gere knew so well through his work with the homeless charities.
Although Time Out of Mind premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, it was actually released in the States in September 2015, and goes on general release in the UK on 4th March 2016. For Gere it was always about more than just making a film. He reasons, “I certainly could see that it could be used as a tool for social change and bring some focus to the issue. I’ve made a point wherever we show the film that we highlight local organisations that are doing this kind of work and are doing it 24/7.” Gere wanted to show what happens when you become homeless: how you survive, how you’re hit by mental deterioration, how it feels as if you’re shell-shocked, and how you cope with the shelters.
One of the decisions they made, pretty early on, was that they would shoot it all on the street. In this respect, the photographer Saul Leiter, was a huge influence on Moverman’s cinematography - however, shooting ‘on the fly’ presented some difficulties in terms of Gere’s ‘invisibility’ quotient. As both producer and actor he was very anxious about the prospect. He thought that if he could shoot more than 10 – 15 seconds before someone recognised him, it might just work. “We shot everything from storefronts, from roof tops, from parks across the road, from under men at work tents,” and all on long lenses on the basis that, “something psychological happens - a long lens makes you feel it’s really happening. There’s something about coming in for overs and close ups in traditional filmmaking and it makes you feel there’s an artifice involved. There’s something that feels like a documentary with a zoom.” Hence, the partial views and slightly grainy appearance of the finished film.
In a similar documentary-style, Gere wanted the film to just roll forward, as if unscripted, and for the most part it does, but stories are so inherent in our psychological make-up that we’re never far away from resolution. Gere’s motivation for instance, isn’t just to find a bed and fill his belly with booze, but to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Maggie, played by Jena Malone. Similarly, when he makes friends with Ben Vareen’s character, Dixon, we see a natural progression of plot as they chew the cud back and forth. There are two lovely interconnected scenes: in the first we seen Dixon attempt to play the piano in a café, having told George he was once a famous jazz pianist. He sits– his fingers hover over the keyboard, but he can’t bring himself to actually play anything. Later George goes alone into the same café and begins to play, tentatively at first, and then with more vigour, until finally he’s playing the jazz that Dixon spoke of earlier. It’s a nice touch and one straight out of the movie maker’s bag of golden moments.
For all this, Gere says he was looking for a deeper story; one that was “much more mysterious; one that had to do with deeper yearnings towards place and home… it was strange how seemingly easy it was to get in and out of this guy’s skin. Believe me, it was just intuitive, it wasn’t anything in a rational sense.”
Apart from Gere’s performance, and that of the cameo from Buscemi , and Ben Vareen’s fabulous portrayal of a man with verbal diarrhoea, we are treated to the spectacle of New York from the ground up. Gere explains that, in addition to the street scenes, much of the footage was shot inside the Bell Vue shelter and that it was a kind of a miracle that they were allowed inside. The lack of a traditional sound track and the use of ‘found’ sounds on street, together with recorded conversations layered in an immersive kind of a way, makes it feel like a very immediate experience. Gere says the sound was all Moverman. “He placed mics all around the city surreptiously; people didn’t know they were being recorded. Oren’s feeling, and rightly so, was… we kind of order our reality around our appointments and we don’t hear things, we don’t see things between here and there. Someone who doesn’t have a place to go to is much more alive to how things are in the moment… we wanted to break all the expectations, spatially as well as time and sound”.
All in all then, this is a film that takes plunges you into that world on the street, where nothing is particularly solid or well defined. It shows how incredibly easy it is to let go and deteriorate to such an extent that there’s almost no way back. Gere is keen to highlight the amazing work being done by Crisis, whom he visited whilst in London this March, and tells us that every single person who goes to see the film, in any screen in the UK, proceeds will go towards Crisis and Centrepoint.
So, for those who might say, ‘oh it’s just Richard Gere playing a homeless man’, it’s about a whole lot more than that. Does George reconnect with his daughter? Does he get his life back on track? It would be wrong to give the game away. Go see it.
This article originally appeared in the now defunct Quadrapheme Review.