Monday, August 25, 2008

Review of The Visitor

This review appeared in the August issue of ICON (formerly Primetime A&E) and is reprinted with permission (thanks, Trina).

Why am I reviewing a movie that's been in theaters for months, giving a chunk of space to this relic when newer movies (American Teen, Brideshead Revisited) are featured elsewhere in this publication?

It feels necessary to write at length about The Visitor, and not because it covers a hot topic (illegal immigration). It's in writer/director and New Jersey native Tom McCarthy's warm and compassionate delivery, which offers a bracing perspective on what's been talked about so much that it's become background noise. McCarthy frames his argument so delicately and has so much love for his characters, that the movie's political agenda clears its throat, shakes your hand, and whispers in your ear. That careful approach, and its resulting revelations, is why the movie deserves (belated) attention.

The Visitor starts with a lonely man and a misunderstanding. Walter Vale (ace character actor Richard Jenkins) is a middle-aged economics professor who seems to purposefully avoid pleasure. His life consists of a series of isolated events, from eating lunch to driving in stern silence. When he speaks, the words come out in the humorless cadence of an overworked bank teller. There isn't even anyone for him to be lonely with. His only son is abroad; his wife his dead, but still a palpable memory: Walter still practices on her old piano while searching for the right teacher.

A man like Walter doesn't adjust well to change, so when he is asked to present a paper at a conference in New York, Walter makes the trip unwillingly. He returns to his old apartment, sets down his bags, and finds a young woman (Danai Gurira) using his bathtub.

Through a lying friend, the young couple--she's from Senegal, he's from Syria--have taken residence in his long-ignored apartment. From this awkward encounter, something blooms. Walter, sensing the couple is having a difficult time, lets them stay. He also accepts the husband's friendly advances. The young man, a charismatic musician named Tarik (Haaz Sleiman), exposes Walter to drumming and a new way of expression. Then Tarik is arrested going to the subway and sent to a detention center for illegal immigrants. His future in this country becomes uncertain.

Walter finds himself in a new world, and his adjustment galvanizes The Visitor. Really, Walter could be one of us. He's isolated and consumed by his daily routine until he realizes that the life he knows isn't available to everyone. McCarthy doesn't make his movie a vehicle to promote immigration reform, but about Walter learning to care again. Walter is not a metaphorical figurehead; he's coping with societal issues on a personal scale. Jenkins nails the performance because of his mannerisms and countenance. He doesn't shed his gloomy life in some kind of internal extreme makeover, but he inches toward Tarik and his alluring, dutiful mother (Hiam Abbass). His gradual melting eases us into the movie and into the points McCarthy makes about a country that can be so accommodating to immigrants, but also so cold.

Not surprisingly, McCarthy makes these points with a velvet touch. Like his first film, The Station Agent, the most rewarding part of The Visitor is in what McCarthy doesn't do--offer gooey life lessons or lecture. McCarthy trusts his audience to pay attention, to notice characters' gestures and slight camera movements, so that when the characters unburden their souls, it means so much more: We're observing life in tumult, not just a writer looking to grandstand or to express a viewpoint. The genius of The Visitor is that with his gentleness and compassion, McCarthy makes the movie more about people than politics.

At the same time, by showing the smaller story behind a national problem without grabbing the audience by its collar, McCarthy has made his point abundantly clear: The American dream is not available to every immigrant, and that affects countless others in ways that columnists and posturing pundits can't elaborate. That undeniably human touch makes The Visitor a special movie, one that will have life beyond the current news cycle.

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