The Visitor

May, 2008, Drama

Thomas McCarthy makes his rent money as an actor, (22 roles in a career which began in 1992) but five years ago he generated quite a splash as the writer/director of The Station Agent, an award-winning (and over-rated) independent film. He’s returned to that role as the creative source of this small, yet heartfelt study of one man’s painful reawaking in the uneasy aftermath of 9/11 which stars Richard Jenkins, the durable, 61 yr. old character actor whose 75 screen performances span more than three decades. McCarthy has said that he wrote this screenplay with Jenkins specifically in mind as the lead and the latter doesn’t disappoint; what’s perhaps more remarkable however, is the degree to which the movie’s two other significant  roles are of a quality that challenge Jenkins’ contribution for subtle nuance and quietly-expressed emotion. Modest in production values and improbable of plot, Visitor nevertheless shines as one of this year’s best… and stands head and shoulders above its more widely lionized predecessor. McCarthy has delivered a thoughtful and impressive meditation on the value, (and painful cost) of human affection amid the mutual suspicions aroused by the emergence of global terrorism - - lets hope it doesn’t take him another half-decade to inspire audiences like this again.

Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a widowed economics professor at Connecticut College aimlessly filling his days teaching classes he doesn’t care about and treating his students and fellow faculty members with icy, off-putting detachment. As he sleepwalks his way through an academic year punctuated with dull classroom performances and uninteresting research for his latest book, he’s asked to travel to New York City to deliver a paper he co-authored at an academic conference. But when he lets himself into the small apartment he’s maintained there for many years, he discovers that it’s been fraudulently sub-let to Tarek Khalil, a young Syrian national who plays African drum in a jazz group. Tarek’s Senegalese girlfriend Zainab insists that the couple vacate the apartment immediately, but Walter, churning a personal mixture of compassion and loneliness, allows them to remain with him overnight until they can make alternative living arrangements. Then the unexpected occurs; Tarek’s warmth and spontaneity captivate Walter, who allows the young couple to stretch their stay into a fortnight during which the young drummer persuades Walter to experiment with drums himself. 

But tragedy strikes in a disarming happenstance; while dragging his drums through a subway turnstile, Tarek is accused by a pair of transit police, of attempting to avoid the fare. Despite his protests of innocence, he’s an Arab and in this era of “homeland security”, the cops are instantly suspicious. Tarek’s taken in for questioning which results in a transfer to a bland, windowless detention center for illegal aliens in the Bronx, because Tarek’s unable to prove he’s in the U.S. legally. When his mother Mouna arrives from her home in Detroit, she enlists Walter’s efforts in hiring an immigration attorney to arrange for her son’s release. As Tarek’s incarceration drags on, Walter and Mouna form an awkward but significant relationship which forces each of them to confront long-buried truths…

Jenkins has been seen in so many interesting films over the last 30 years that he’s taken on the appearance of a favorite easy chair that’s been around so long it’s become a member of the family. He wears professorial detachment here like a suit of armor, carefully keeping the world at bay even as he’s molting inside his own skin. Walter’s an unappealing character and it’s a tribute to Jenkins’ skills that he’s able to so gradually transform this withdrawn, emotionally inert scholar into a genuinely likeable and worthy figure.

But every Tristan needs his Isolde – someone worth fighting for, even in a losing cause; as the widow Mouna, Tarek’s soft-spoken, dark-haired mother, (Palestinian-born actress Hiam Abbass) chastely seduces Walter into becoming her protector with the inherent, self-confident dignity of a woman supremely aware of her charms and absolutely convinced that she’s doing God’s work in struggling to free her son. Abbass has appeared in a number of internationally-based films, (The Syrian Bride) but she first came to the attention of American audiences in 2002’s Satin Rouge, in which she plays a cloistered widow who discovers her sexual allure in belly-dancing; as in this film, the actress conveys a powerful sensuality firmly under control, an ability most American actresses would do well to emulate, had they the requisite skill.       

Tarek is played by Haaz Sleiman, a young Lebanese actor who imbues his character with a mischievous yet naïve personality that captures Walter’s affection, and in doing so, that of the audience. He’s an improbably wholesome character perhaps, but Sleiman manages to blend compelling willfulness with aching vulnerability to create a haunting picture of a young man being slowly sucked into a post - 9/11 vortex of menacingly insensitive bureaucracy. Though it’s a relatively small part, Sleiman makes a very impressive statement with it. 

There are any number of small pleasures in The Visitor beyond the superb work of its three principals; the brief exchange between Walter and a gay tenant in his building, the attention paid Mouna by a lonely waiter in the hardscrabble diner near the detention center, the amateur group-drumming concerts in the city’s parks and the perfectly captured graffiti-laden locations which leave no doubt that this movie was shot precisely where its action takes place. These bright spots of urban vitality serve to make McCarthy’s darker point ever more effectively; since the destruction of The World Trade Center, we live in a world of mutual suspicion which has often caused those who protect us to hide behind a wall of callous indifference as impermeable as the Plexiglas shield separating Walter from the detention center employees he encounters each time he visits Tarek. When they repeatedly instruct him to “step back from the window” after rejecting his pleas for perfectly legitimate information, their mantra becomes an eerie commentary on the fear-laden times in which we live. 

The verdict? A perfectly balanced, quietly subversive dramatic gem which leaves those who see it with the uneasy feeling that we’ve lost more in the war on terror than we’re prepared to admit.

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