September 10, 2015 6:20 AM EDT

Richard Gere proves to be a mixed blessing in the fascinating Time Out of Mind, a passion project for the actor and the writer-director Oren Moverman (Rampart). From its opening chorus of church bells, it’s a drama that pleads for a more sympathetic view of the homeless. Naturally, Gere’s presence as the sometimes lucid, occasionally delusional alcoholic George will attract attention to the film and its message. Yet at the same time, there’s the unavoidable suggestion of noblesse oblige that will distract from what is often a very affecting performance by Gere as a grizzled member of New York City’s derelict underclass.

Gere, who panhandled on a Manhattan street during shooting (he claims to have gone unrecognized and made only $1.50), said the experience showed him how the homeless can seem invisible to their fellow man. It’s a point Moverman makes throughout the film with both imagery and sound. From the moment we meet George, his face half hidden in the bathtub where he’s being rousted by a building manager (Steve Buscemi), he’s only partly onscreen. The rest of him is obscured by doorways, reflected in windows and hidden by lampposts and park benches. The sounds of the city swirl around him, and despite him, on mobile phones, radios and the conversations of a community to which he no longer belongs. Visually, Time Out of Mind is a tour de force. And the film benefits from Moverman’s decision to maintain George’s mystery: How did a man of such obvious intelligence, privilege and good looks come to such a lowly state? There are answers, but not many. George’s universality is the point–even if he’s being played by Richard Gere.

–JOHN ANDERSON

This appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of TIME.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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