Director : Thomas McCarthy
Screenplay : Thomas McCarthy
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Richard Jenkins (Prof. Walter Vale), Haaz Sleiman (Tarek Khalil), Danai Gurira (Zainab), Hiam Abbass (Mouna Khalil), Marian Seldes (Barbara), Maggie Moore (Karen), Michael Cumpsty (Charles), Bill McHenry (Darin), Richard Kind (Jacob), Tzahi Moskovitz (Zev), Amir Arison (Mr. Shah), Neal Lerner (Martin Revere)
Richard Jenkins is a consummate character actor who has appeared in supporting roles in dozens of studio-produced and independent films. Comedies, dramas, action movies--if you have spent any appreciable amount of time watching movies, chances are you’ve seen him numerous times. He is one of the actors who you can immediately recognize as familiar, but rarely put your finger on exactly where you’ve seen him. The Visitor should change that.
A small, intimate character study with broad post-9/11 thematic relevance by actor-turned-filmmaker Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent), The Visitor cast Jenkins as Walter Vale, a widower and college economics professor in Connecticut who has turned so deeply inward that he has lost the ability to connect with anyone--his students, his colleagues, even the kindly old woman who gives him piano lessons. There is, of course, a danger in turning Walter into a one-note sad-sack, and herein lies the beauty of Jenkins’ performance: You can sense the once vibrant man he used to be lurking deep beneath his subconsciously self-imposed thick skin of disillusionment and distance. He spends the beginning of the film moping about, usually alone in the frame drinking wine or staring out the window, but there are brief, almost subliminal flashes of life, of the man he used to be. Thus, we can feel sad for Walter, but without being drowned in the stickiness of abject pity.
The story hinges on a trip to New York City where Walter must deliver a paper at an economics convention, whose focus on global development will take on an ironic tone. Walter doesn’t want to go, but he has little choice, so he returns to an apartment in the city where he hasn’t lived for years. When he arrives, he is surprised to find that the apartment is inhabited by two immigrants: a Syrian émigré musician named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his jewelry-making Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). After a tense stand-off, Tarek and Zainab realize that they have been scammed by a “friend” who told them the apartment was available for sublease. Rather than toss them out on the street, Walter allows them to stay for a few days while they find another place to live, and during that time he and Tarek develop an unlikely friendship that begins the long-overdue process of drawing Walter out of his shell and reintroducing him to the beauties and joys of that thing called life.
That is only the first half of the story, though, as there is a crucial turning point when Tarek is arrested for ridiculous reasons and it is discovered that he is in the United States illegally. His mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), a slight, prim, but utterly dedicated woman, shows up after Tarek is locked away in a detention center with an uncertain future, which adds a new dimension to Walter’s profoundly life-altering experiences with those he would normally ignore, if not actively avoid. Because no one else can help Tarek (neither Zainab nor Mouna can step foot in the detention facility, lest their illegal status be discovered, as well), Walter finds himself in the position of being the only one who can save his newfound friend from deportation, which finally gives him a goal in life. Dealing with Tarek’s situation is profound and human, and it shakes Walter out of his ennui and forces him to recognize the gross inequities of his country’s treatment of those from other shores who just want a small piece of the American Dream that he had so long taken for granted.
While at times a bit too sentimental and, of course, an open target for critics who will immediately harp on its use of “exotic” characters as redemption for a self-obsessed white man (cue: liberal guilt!), The Visitor is nevertheless a gently moving film--and I use the term “gently” in the best possible sense. So many movies today are loud, aggressive, and pushy--and I’m not just talking about action movies. As a quiet, thoughtful drama, The Visitor takes its time setting up its characters, and McCarthy recognizes the beauty of the smallest details, whether it be the release that Walter feels in learning to play the African drum along with Tarek, or Mouna’s deciding to have a rare glass of wine. When Walter breaks down at one point and starts shouting at the necessarily cynical guards working at the detention center, the forcefulness of the moment is a bit too much, but it reminds us of just how much the film has been able to convey without ever needing to raise its voice.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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