A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, PG-13, 108 mins.
2008, PG-13, 108 mins.
Richard Jenkins: Walter / Haaz Sleiman: Tarek / Danai Gurira: Zainab / Hiam Abbass: Mouna
Written and directed by Tom McCarthy
VISITOR - Tom
McCarthy’s follow-up to his critically lauded debut film, 2003’s THE
STATION AGENT - is a deeply moving and heartfelt human drama that stands
triumphantly on its own two feet by focusing squarely on basic cinematic
essentials: solid performances, a well drawn out screenplay, intriguing
characters, and low key and understated direction that never
panders nor distracts.
it does – and does better than any film in 2008 – is demonstrate
such a delicate and restrained handling of its underlining material and
themes which, under a lesser director's and writer’s hands, could have
degenerated into TV-movie-of-the-week clichés and phony sentimentality. Rarely has there been a film so small in relative stature
that achieves so much by doing so little: THE VISITOR is a
textbook exercise in showing how an introspective approach, utterly void
of modern movie pomp and circumstance, can inevitably make a film so
rewarding and fulfilling. At a time of bloated, big-budget, CGI-laced
blockbuster spectacles that splash across the summer movie screens, THE
VISITOR is a most welcome change for more discerning film viewers.
of these accolades are due in large part to the toweringly strong lead
performance by Richard Jenkins, a vaguely known 60-year-old actor that has
bestowed film viewers here with a such a deeply textured and nuanced
portrayal of loneliness, social isolation, and ultimately personal
reawakening. Jenkins is one
of those actors that even lay moviegoers will recognize as “that guy
from that show”, as he has been a steady character actor on TV
and movies for the last 40 years. He
has been in works as far ranging as HANNAH AND HER SISTERS to the films of
the Coen and the Farrelly Brothers. His
unique abilities at effortlessly dialing between light comedy, humble
dramatic inflection, and dry wit is strong suit, and it is all on full
display in THE VISITOR, and his work here is a clinic on how underplaying a
part can pay off so much more substantially.
Watching him sneak his way into the lead part is a superb
experience in witnessing how a great actor can so unassumingly inhabit a role
without engaging in shameful camera mugging and self-righteous overkill.
Guys by the names of Nicholson and Pacino – based on recent work
– could learn a thing or two by the much-less-famous Jenkins.
presence is such a fleeting one in this film.
He never tries to hammer home an emotion for a cheap payoff.
He has a rock steady demeanor, a marginal looking outer façade (he
looks nothing like Hollywood royalty), and a rigidly soft and clear spoken
voice, which creates an overwhelming aura of ordinariness to him.
This, of course, is absolutely essential to the success of the rest of
the film, which safely travels from one sublimely authentic moment to the
next. THE VISITOR covers a
considerable amount of thematic ground: It’s a story of multicultural
friendship; coming to grips with your past; discovering something special
that you once never thought was; timely US immigration policies, and a heartfelt ode to music.
Ultimately, and despite its denseness with the ground its story
covers, we are always kept emotionally grounded by Jenkins’ beautifully
polished and straightforward performance.
This is not the kind of work that desperately reaches out for Oscar
glory, but it should be.
film is told with miraculous minimalism, which only assists the film’s
key dramatic moments to resonate more profoundly.
We meet Walter Vale, a terribly introverted, emotionless, subdued,
and unassuming University Professor of Economics.
He’s the kind of teacher that students hate: the one that walks
into a lecture hall with an emotionless, Spockian vibe that dryly gives
his lectures by reading monotonously from the podium.
His heart is not in his studies.
He insists to his superiors that he is busy writing a book that may
or may not be a work in progress, and constantly complains that his
scholastic workload makes his free time limited, despite only teaching one
full time class. His days are
daily endurance tests to deal with isolation and seclusion: His beautiful
wife of several years - a decorated pianist - died, making him a reclusive
Walter tries to take up the piano in his spare time, but shows no
real competency or willingness to learn.
His whole existence is essentially joyless.
steps in when his boss tells him that he must go to New York to present a
paper that he apparently co-authored.
He wants no part of it, partly because the paper was, by his own
admission, ostensibly written by the co-author and the fact that he does
not want anything impeding on his compartmentalized lifestyle.
Nevertheless, he does go to the big city and returns to his
infrequently used apartment in the Big Apple…but he is caught off guard
by a big surprise. When he
arrives he is startled to find that a young couple, the Syrian born Tarek
(Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira) are
living there (someone that we never meet essentially misinformed them that
Walter’s pad was to be subleted to them).
Walter may have a terribly drab personality, but he is, at heart, a
decent and understanding soul that can identify the young couple as
equally decent…and the unfortunate victim of a mistake.
As a result, Walter decides to do the right thing and let the
one would assume that this film would follow a unbendingly straight line
and go from one predictable plot point to the next, but the brilliance of
THE VISITOR is how it modestly defies expectations and never assumes the
path most taken. Walter comes
to befriend the couple and especially takes a liking to Tarek’s talents:
He is a starving musician whose specialty is the djembe (African drum).
Dumb-downed scripts cold have easily reduced their relationship to a
love/hate one of sitcom proportions, but McCarty’s screenplay simmers
slowly and patiently: We slowly discover our fondness and appreciation for
Tarek’s rhythmic drumming as Walter does.
Soon, Tarek begins to tutor Walter in ways of the drum, and one of
the real pleasures of THE VISITOR is seeing this largely guarded and
socially stunted man discovering a real passion for something truly
different. The film's few
musical interludes - which shows an increasingly self-confident and
actualized Walter, banging away on his djembe alongside Tarek and fellow
street musicians in a Manhattan park - have such a simplistic, transcendental power.
with the freshness of these opening acts of the film, THE VISITOR still
manages to traverse along unpredictable lines.
What was a film about a friendless and reclusive man finding
friendship and a new love of music slowly merges with a story of
socio-political significance, but the film never browbeats viewers with
post-911 pontificating. During
one inopportune subway excursion, Tarek is rather unfairly arrested in
front of the pleading Walter, mostly because the officers are paranoid and
Tarek looks like a potential Arab “threat.”
When he is sent to a dreary detention center, we – along with
Walter – learn that Tarek and his girlfriend are, in fact, illegal
immigrants and will likely be deported.
When news of this breaks to Tarek’s mother (played in a touching
and sadly poignant performance by Hiam Abbass), she quickly leaves her
home in Michigan to come to her son’s aid, during which time she becomes
another new friend in Walter’s life. As Walter and the mother develop a closeness to one another,
Tarek’s time in America is threatened with the threat of being
immediately moved to another nameless detention center or, worse yet, out
of the country altogether.
film could have hastily developed the relationship between Waiter and
Tarek’s mother into one of those haphazard, obligatory cross cultural
romances, but THE VISITOR is too sincere with the material for such
rudimentary excesses. Again,
this is a film that never once flaunts with cliché or shameful
sentimentality; instead, it yearns to be a literate character study of a
melancholically average man that rises above his mundane and fruitless
everyday reality to discover how friendship can heal his deepest wounds.
The film could have been egregiously about how a post-911
xenophobia makes the US an uninviting place to live, but THE VISITOR
thankless avoids blatant political sermonizing.
At its core, the film is more affecting for how it tells a tale of
how people of vastly different cultures and races can merge together
through their commonalties. By
not allowing the timely political content overwhelm the film’s message,
McCarthy gives the characters’ relationships to one another create
interest in the issues around them. These
are simple people that have a larger canvas of societal ills open up in
front of them, which gives THE VISITOR such a bittersweet and
sheer delight of sitting through THE VISITOR is taking the journey through
it and experiencing what this movie has to say about the intricacies and
delicacies of human nature. This
film is a celebration of a re-birth in life for a man at the autumn of his
survival, during a point where he needs human contact to emotionally mend.
The film also has something to say about the West’s highly
contentious immigration handling procedures, but McCarthy never paints the
screen with a preponderance of nihilism and despair.
There is a undeniably haunting foreboding to Walter Vale’s
newfound friendships, but the film – especially in its final moments –
seems more interested in reveling in a euphoric level of personal resolve
and hope. In the end, Richard
Jenkin’s masterfully discreet and calmly authoritative performance
drives this film forward to the point where THE VISITOR becomes so quietly
and auspiciously rousing. This
film serenely bangs its dramatic drum, without a hint of methodical