A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #11


2008, PG-13, 108 mins.

Richard Jenkins: Walter / Haaz Sleiman: Tarek / Danai Gurira: Zainab / Hiam Abbass: Mouna

Written and directed by Tom McCarthy

THE 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.  

What 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.

All 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. 

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. 

The 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 widow.  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. 

Fate 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 couple stay. 

Now, 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. 

Even 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. 

The 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 heartwarming vigor.   

The 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 overindulgence. 

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