1. New York City is obviously the central setting of thousands of movies, and, being New York City, it’s adept at serving as whatever backdrop you want it to serve. It can connote romance or menace, limitless possibility or untold decadence, Candyland or the Hellmouth. But, as someone who lived there for 13 years, I always find it most compelling when it represents something much more basic and universal: indifference. The city is so large and so populated and so busy that, in its own way, it’s as close to replicating the cruel, unblinking stillness of nature as any city in the world. NYC does not care if you live or die, if you are happy or sad, if you are thriving or if you are falling apart. It is simply New York City: It is moving on with or without you. Greta Garbo famously said that it was the only place she could truly be alone. You are surrounded by every type of person humanity can conjure up, millions of them, which might be the most isolating thing on the planet. You’re never more alone than when surrounded by people who don’t give a shit about you.
2. Time Out of Mind is about a homeless man named George wandering the streets of New York City, but the movie’s masterstroke is that he is almost always in the background of his scenes. Director Oren Moverman, who made 2009’s deeply moving The Messenger, always makes sure his hero is doing something by himself, just getting by, while we were are listening to something else. He rummages through garbage while two janitors talk about the Mets; he swigs from a gin bottle in the corner as a young hipster argues with his girlfriend outside a bar; he checks for quarters in a pay phone while a father instructs a son on the best way to cross the street. Life is constantly happening in this film, always passing us by, indifferent to our fears and concerns and perils. At one point, the mostly silent and taciturn George remarks, with something in his voice that approaches awe, “10 years ... 10 years just happened.” Life is not waiting for you. Life is doing just fine without you. This is a portrait of homelessness and despair and pain, but deep down, it’s about something even more existentially terrifying than that. It’s about indifference.
3. George Hammond—played by Richard Gere in a towering performance that’s immersive and powerful—has a tragic backstory, one he could never really overcome. But the movie makes no excuses for him: As he puts it himself, “I’m a fuckup. I guess I always was.” He has a serious drinking problem and uses anyone he comes across, making up stories to prey on people’s sympathies and good natures. He is the self-architect of almost all his own suffering. (The movie focuses solely on George, but is wise and expansive enough to recognize that this situation is specific to him rather than a general explanation for homelessness.) He roams from one shelter to another, trying to stay out of everyone’s way but still finding people who want to help him, help he often rejects to his own detriment. He has a daughter (Jena Malone), whom he abandoned years ago and whom he now follows around the city, staring at her from outside the windows of taverns where she tends bars. He is a dying man, stumbling around aimlessly until his time runs out. He is the type of guy who considers his last charitable act for humanity to be staying out of everyone’s way. The movie isn’t afraid to argue that he may be right.
4. There’s still hope, though. George meets fellow homeless men and women in the shelters who are as lost as he is, but not as removed from the rest of us. They reach out to him, seeing possibilities that he does not. The social safety net comes with all its perils—much of the plot here involves George digging through countless layers of bureaucracy just to get a copy of his social security card so he can receive food stamps and other public benefits—but it’s there. Whether he’s looking for them or not, he keeps coming across people who want to give him assistance, or comfort, or just mercy. He has stopped trying to connect with the world, but even among those who are lost, not everyone has stopped trying to connect with him. As he goes along, he realizes there is more still he can lose, and, in a way that’s both inspiring and heartbreaking, he finds the energy to try, one more time, to live again.
5. I should warn you that this movie is not an easy sit. There is no plot, and no real shape to the narrative. (The only nods to anything resembling a traditional movie don’t really work; the film is at its best when it’s at its most formless.) Think of it more like a tone poem. We simply follow George around from place to place—people appear, they disappear, some come back, some don’t—and we see the world, and New York City, the way George sees it: as a constant, vivid presence that’s always in his face, yet also a million miles away. The camera constantly focuses on Gere’s broken-yet-still-handsome face—several characters point out just how good-looking this homeless drifter is—and how unchanged it is: How far gone he might be, and how far he must go to come back. Is it too far? It’s probably too far. But these stories are everywhere. Time Out of Mind looks at a person, and a culture, who doesn’t even have the benefit of being forgotten about. It’s about a person we never even thought about at all. That strikes me as infinitely worse.
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