Director: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass
Running Time: 103 min.
***1/2 (out of ****)
“Hey, it’s THAT guy.”
How many times have we said that when watching a movie and an actor we recognize appears on screen? We could have seen them in tons of different films but still don’t have a clue of their name. Character actors are among the hardest working, most underappreciated people in Hollywood. They’re journeymen and women moving from role to role, yet also chameleons in the way they can slip into each of them and make it their own. Most of them will never get top billing in a major film once in their careers, yet sometimes it’s their performance that audiences remember most.
Some of them break through to the mainstream. Most don't, but a few do. Kevin Spacey was one. So was William H. Macy. At one point we didn’t have a clue who they were, but we definitely knew the face. All it takes is one role. For Richard Jenkins that role has come with The Visitor as his years of hard work are rewarded with the role of his life. It’s a victory for character actors everywhere and makes you wonder how many other lesser-known names just need to be afforded the opportunity Jenkins was here. Probably more than we think. And here's hoping the Academy doesn't snub it like they did Peter Dinklage's equally textured work in The Station Agent. This is one of the very best performances so far this year.
Often small films are released and hyped up by the media as “indie darlings” or “small gems.” Most of them aren’t, and as a result, the few that really are, suffer. 2003’s The Station Agent was a special kind of film that was actually the real deal. And now it’s director Tom McCarthy has made another one, just further proving the strong, but sensitive control he has in dealing with real-life issues. This should be screened back to back with Gavin Hood’s clumsy Rendition so everyone can see how one movie can treat a difficult subject with dignity and intelligence while another trips over a similar topic with complete stupidity. This film is timely and political but its greatest asset is that it doesn’t feel like that at all. It’s really about a lonely man spinning his wheels until something comes along that gives his life renewed meaning and purpose. And when it does, a certain pain even accompanies that.
Sometimes you see people who are just going through the motions, disengaged from everything that’s happening around them and a spectator to their own life. 62 year-old Connecticut economics professor Walter Vale (Jenkins) is literally going through the motions after the death of his wife. We know his wife passed away before its even revealed. Not because the script is obvious, but because you can read it on Jenkins’ face. He hates his job and takes up classical piano as a hobby, not because he enjoys it, but because his wife was a classical pianist. He’s terrible at it but doesn’t care. He’s also not a very good professor and could care even less. His excuse for teaching only one class (the same one he’s been teaching for 20 years) is that working on a book. He’s not. The truth is he isn’t doing anything…at all. He hasn’t been for a while now.
The ultimate slap in the face comes when he’s asked (or rather told) to fly to New York City to present a paper he didn’t even write at a stuffy academic conference. While there he discovers two illegal immigrants staying in his long vacated apartment. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian drummer and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira in her film debut) a jewelry maker from Senegal, apologize for the intrusion and attempt to leave. But Walter, knowing they have no place to go, invites them to stay with him. Tarek begins giving drum lessons to Walter and he begins to find the emotional release and connection the piano never supplied for him. Through this new friendship we start to see glimpses of the man he was before his wife’s death. Until Tarek is suddenly and unjustifiably arrested in the subway and taken to a detention center where he faces the threat of deportation. Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) is also in the country illegally and forms a bond with Walter to help her son escape this horrific predicament.
Don’t be fooled by the topic this explores. It isn’t the usual liberal garbage that Hollywood has been feeding us over the past couple of years. While it probably won’t end up on Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’ Reilly’s list of favorite films and it does take a hard stance on the illegal immigration issue it does so with fairness and with intelligence. It doesn’t paint this as a human issue, not a political one. It pulls no punches in invoking 9/11 and it’s a testament to how relevant it is to the story that it would have been more offensive had McCarthy not mentioned it. But I hesitate even saying it has any political undercurrents at all because it’ll be the last thing on your mind when the film ends. The story is about the gradual lifting of Walter’s isolation and re-entry into the world. When his wife passed away so did he. Not physically, but emotionally. He’s dead to the world, but more importantly, to himself.
What makes Jenkins’ performance so brilliant is how, underneath the melancholy exterior, he gives us small, subtle clues that he was once a vibrant man who loved life. It’s a tightrope walk going through an entire film in a shroud of depression but giving us just enough of a hint that there’s still something left in there. So many others actors would have attempted to do too much and succumb to grand displays of emotion when they’re not called for, but not Jenkins. He knows better. Because of this we’re treated to a man slowly re-discovering his life and what resonates deepest is how important it is to have something that you love no matter how insignificant it seems to anyone else, whether it be a job or a hobby or anything. Music becomes that for Walter and for the first time in a while he starts to actually feel.
I’m always amazed that when meeting someone the first question asked is always “What do you do?” Of course, the implication of that is what someone does for a living defines who they are as a person. That’s always the LAST question I ask because the other stuff is always a lot more interesting. This movie actually understands that. It also understands, in depicting the relationship that develops between Walter and Tarek’s mother, that it is possible for a man and woman to care deeply for one another with no romantic strings attached. A dumb mainstream Hollywood film would have had them jumping into the sack over their grief. This story and its characters exist on a deeper level.
Much like McCarthy's previous film, The Station Agent, this is fairly straightforward and contains little in the way of surprises. The joy is in how he gets there. What surprises there are come in recognizing all the mistakes that are somehow avoided in dealing with material this tricky. The final scene is perfect on every level. It’s rare you see a closing moment that reaches for the truth. It isn’t one of those “Hollywood endings” where everyone’s okay and goes skipping off into the sunset. It’s a real life ending where someone goes through an eye-opening experience and comes out on the other end a little stronger. Not even much, but a little. And it’s just enough to keep them going.
The film will primarily be remembered for Jenkins performance, but a strong argument could be made that his three co-stars add an important ingredient to him giving it. Had any of them, especially Sleiman as Tarek, been replaced by different actors this wouldn’t have been the same story. With The Visitor Tom McCarthy is two for two in effectively making the toughest kind of film, the human drama. And for Richard Jenkins, audiences now have a name to go with the face.