In the unnervingly bleak, marvelous new film Time Out of Mind, Richard Gere plays a homeless man trying to survive on the streets of New York City. Though he doesn't — not now, at least — think of himself as homeless, George comes to us fast asleep in a bath in an apartment not his own. Thrown out without ceremony by a landlord's enforcer (Steve Buscemi), George keeps trying to weasel his way back into the building, insisting that someone called Sheila ("my lady") would be back soon to support his claim to residence, he insists. He begs a few bucks and spends them on beer, then talks a stranger into delivering some photos to a young blond woman (Jena Malone) he has stalked to her job tending bar. She's his estranged daughter, it turns out, and either she doesn't want to know or she's heard it all before.
From there it's all pretty much downhill as George scrambles to keep body and soul together, shuttling between welfare offices, an overwhelmed homeless shelter in Bellevue hospital, and the streets. There, enraged and frustrated at being alternately ignored and ringed around with rules and red tape, he conducts himself like a man trying to bargain without chips.
Time Out of Mind has been getting stellar advance reviews, and everywhere critics are lauding Gere's performance while complaining about how underappreciated the actor has been down the years. Really? Like every actor with a long resume Gere has had his share of stinkers — I'm too mixed on Pretty Woman to get into it here, but perhaps we can agree on An Officer and a Gentleman and Dr. T. and the Women. But the pictures didn't stink because of Gere, and his range (Chicago, I'm Not There) is as broad as they come even when those narrow little eyes have threatened to lock him into playing shifty power mongers (from Internal Affairs to Arbitrage, via others) for the rest of his career.
At 66, Gere remains a suave hunk of astonishing physical grace. (Would it surprise you to know that he got into college on a gymnastics scholarship?) Though he hasn't gone short of meaty roles in recent years, I'm willing to believe that he developed Time Out of Mind, with writer-director Oren Moverman (Rampart, The Messenger), under the aegis of his own production company as a vehicle for himself. Still, his rendering of George's unraveling is anything but a grab for attention, and not just because of terrific support from Malone, a near-unrecognizable Kyra Sedgwick as a homeless woman embraced by George as his Sheila, and an outstanding Ben Vereen as a garrulous, upbeat man, also living on the street, who drives the taciturn George up the wall and warms his heart just a little.
Gere is extraordinary here, and it says something about his disciplined, inward-facing performance, and about the movie's subtle visual strategies, that he's in almost every frame of Time Out of Mind, but only rarely at the center of it. Moverman shoots Gere in very long shots through wire fences and glass doors and windows, down hallways, up and down the streets he roams aimlessly, into the shelter where he retires to bed down for the night. George grimaces and swivels those beady eyes but makes little eye contact with others. The moving lips seem to conduct an internal dialogue, but he doesn't seem to talk much, except to erupt at irregular intervals when the frustration gets to him. Mostly, though, it's not George we hear but the ambient voices around him of people with more purposeful lives, as they might sound to a man for whom the simple business of feeding himself and finding a bed for the night requires constant, unrelenting effort.
Far from currying favor on George's behalf as most movies about the homeless do, Moverman invites us to observe the process by which a man's identity, fragile enough to begin with, is stripped away, often with his cooperation. There are people who want or are paid to help George, but he's a hard man to help. He lies, steals, squanders precious handouts on booze, and manipulates or harangues those who try to help him. He has no boundaries: When a kindly nurse in the hospital's emergency room tries to help, he asks to move in with her. And he repays the goodness of Vereen's Dixon ("So I'm a cartoon, at least I'm animated!") with complaint.
"Am I homeless?" cries George in bewildered despair toward the end of Time Out of Mind. That's as close as this determinedly specific movie gets to a topic sentence. Just as Breaking Bad was less about evil than about how a man becomes evil, Time Out of Mind is less about homelessness than about how a man becomes homeless, how he drops out of the world, willy-nilly, and loses whatever identity he once had.
Moverman won't allow us to objectify George, or to pity or dismiss him as a homeless guy who's always been that way, and always will. At the end, the director offers a glimmer of hope that we need as badly as George does. Shortly before that, we see George do something he's never done before — eat from a trashcan. Time Out of Mind pays him the honor of making us see, not the why or the what, but how he came to that sorry pass. In that sense, it's the finest portrait of homelessness I've ever seen.