The voice sounds familiar. We recognize the tone of a man whose polish has graced the screen for more than three decades. But something is different. And when we see the eyes — those clear channels into his soul — we wonder if this could be the same actor who wooed Julia Roberts on a fire escape. Is Richard Gere alone, in a bathtub, in an abandoned apartment in Manhattan?

The idea of a star playing a homeless man on the streets of New York could be seen as a not-so-subtle attempt to snag award attention. But Gere has more on his mind than walking a red carpet. With no signs of attitude or vanity, he disappears into the crowd thanks to the creative approach of director Owen Moverman. They create a fascinating study of how people get lost in layers of civil bureaucracy despite commitments from city officials.

Time Out of Mind is a deceptively complex film that tells a story we may fear but may not fully understand. Every day, in nearby Manhattan, thousands of people find themselves on the streets, alone, abandoned, adjusting to the realities of lives patched together. By day, they look for small jobs and favors; at night, some secure spots in shelters while others search for safety and warmth. For those at the fringe of a city’s social services, time can become a sentence.

Gere plays a man who may not belong on the streets but finds himself a victim of how the city can lose track of people. Once he mattered to the world, professionally and personally, until bad decisions left him without money to live or paperwork to prove he exists. A disengaged daughter discards his challenges; a friendly saloonkeeper lets him occasionally play the piano. But the man has nowhere to turn. And the city doesn’t know what to do when a man can’t document his life.

Director Moverman establishes this sense of urban isolation by creatively shooting Gere from a distance, letting us discover how the people around him ignore his presence. In a series of scenes shot through windows and across streets, Moverman defines the city as a crowded place where anyone can look through anyone without noticing. And, working with an actor who dares to reveal the layers, the director personalizes the challenge of protecting people who get caught in red tape.

While the film has things to say, Moverman and Gere never forget they are making a movie and not delivering a lecture. Within the serious narrative, they deliver entertaining moments. An unrecognizable Ben Vereen delights as a man Gere encounters at a shelter while Kyra Sedgwick disappears into a cameo as a woman who long ago decided she didn’t have a place in the documented world.

But this is Gere’s movie. And, rather than let Time Out of Mind become a star turn, director Moverman helps the star submerge his personality to create a thoughtful study of how people overlook what they do not want to see. Together the star and director help us see that what we notice can make a difference.

Film Nutritional Value

Time Out of Mind

* Content: High. With its focus on characters, and the complexities of a city trying to help its homeless, the film offers a lot to consider.

* Entertainment: High. Despite the serious subject matter, the film lets the natural rhythm of the situations and the humanity of the characters breathe.

* Message: High. As we sit in our comfortable settings, director Owen Moverman alerts us to layers of life we may never see.

* Relevance: High. We should welcome any chance to reflect on how lucky we are when we can end each day knowing that we have places to sleep.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Talk with your older children about these characters, what they face, who lets them down, and what people who sit in comfort can do to help those less fortunate.

(Time Out of Mind is showing at area theaters and on demand. It does not carry an MPAA rating. The film runs 119 minutes.)

4-1/2 Popcorn Buckets

With his award-worthy performance in Time Out of Mind, Richard Gere reminds us how strong a character actor he can be when working with rich material. While he may be best known for his leading man roles, Gere has been delivering the dramatic goods for almost 40 years. Here are a few of his memorable portrayals.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Before playing comedy on screen, Gere initiated his career with serious portrayals in important films including this landmark drama from Terence Malick. While no actor ever gets a lot of freedom in a Malick film to fully explore a character – because the director’s vision grabs the spotlight – Gere makes us feel the pain of a young man trying to carve out a life in a world where other people set the rules. Gere shows he can make any dialogue sound authentic in a film that may feel too stylized for its own good.

Yanks (1979)

A year before Gere became a superstar – for the trendy American Gigolo he offered a performance of substantive subtlety in this exaggerated romantic drama from John Schlesinger. While the production values (recreating Britain in World War II) look authentic, it’s the feel in Gere’s work that makes us believe in the unlikely romance between a married Army captain and a proper Brit. Even though the film may be too long, and tries to tell too many stories, Gere brings it home with the candor of his work.

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Gere sealed his future as a romantic idol with this topsy-turvy look at the lengths to which some women will go to land the men they love. While Debra Winger was Oscar nominated for her appealing if limited performance, Gere is the one who makes it all come together. If we didn’t believe his growth as a character, we would never tolerate the melodrama that Taylor Hackford puts us through. But it’s all worth it when Gere lets us know how high in the skies reel love can travel.

Primal Fear (1996)

While Pretty Woman may have positioned Gere as a new-age Cary Grant – the well-dressed sophisticate who woos the unlikely woman – this thriller from Gregory Hoblit casts Gere as a lawyer who wants to believe in what he hears even when he can’t help but wonder what he sees. While we have seen this plot in many movies, we rarely see an actor who can make it all seem so fresh. Even though Edward Norton walked away with the reviews, Gere gives the film its foundation.

Dr. T and the Woman (2000)

Only Gere can make us believe all the exaggerated situations that Robert Altman brings to this entertaining tale of a wealthy Dallas doctor who can’t decide what is real in his life. The actor walks a fine line between fantasy and reality in a film where we are never quite sure what actually happens and what must be imagined. And if the ending makes us wonder what we have been watching for two hours, Gere lets us know that as bizarre as the movie may be to experience, try inhabiting the complex leading character.

Arbitrage (2012)

Many believed this might be the film that would finally bring Gere the recognition he deserved for many years. And while its detailed tale of greed, lust and deception may fill the screen with entertainment, the tone and style of the film may simply be glossy for audiences to absorb the depth of the actor’s work. The fear Gere brings to the role – as a man who loses control over his carefully-manipulated life – demonstrates that the craft he brings to his work shines through any situation.

Hopefully, Time Out of Mind will put Gere in the conversation for end-of-year honors. Certainly the authenticity of his work, and the purity of his convictions, should place his name on many a list. He’s a special actor who never settles for the routine. And he makes it all look so easy.