Sunday, July 15, 2012

Movie – The Visitor (2007)

The Visitor is the movie that Richard Jenkins had been waiting 25 years for.  After having been a supporting actor in any number of well-respected films (starting with 1985’s Silverado and 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, through stints with both the Coen Brothers and the Farrelly Brothers, right up to 2005’s North Country), he finally got the chance to carry his own film.  Instead of being “that guy” that you recognize, but maybe can’t remember his name, he finally became “the guy” and boy did he deliver.  He received a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work in this film.  He is the biggest reason to see it.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s first film was 2003’s The Station Agent.  If you haven’t seen it, then you really should.  It was the first thing I ever saw Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) in and I was very impressed with both his leading performance, and the movie as a whole.  McCarthy avoided a sophomore slump by similarly delivering on his second film – The Visitor.  I have not seen his third film yet – 2011’s Win Win.  By the way, McCarthy has also been acting steadily since the early 1990s.

In The Visitor, Walter (Jenkins) is a college professor teaching economics at a Connecticut college.  He is a widower and his life isn’t really going anywhere.  He half-heartedly takes piano lessons in memory of his wife because she was a pianist.  He is supposedly working on a book, but in reality he hasn’t done much with it.  He doesn’t really have any friends.  His life changes one day when he needs to go to New York City to present a paper he co-sponsored.

After that conference is over, instead of driving hours to get back home in Connecticut, he goes to an apartment that he and his wife had in Manhattan.  He hasn’t visited it since she died.  He is startled to find a young couple living in it.  They had been swindled by someone who claimed to be the owner who rented it to them.  They quickly gather their things and start to leave, but Walter has had time to get over his shock, and he feels bad because it is very late, so he tells them they can stay for the night.

One night starts to stretch into the next day, then the next.  The man is named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and he is a djembe player.  (It’s a drum you play with your hands.)  The woman is named Zainab (Danai Gurira) and she makes jewelry.  Walter quickly finds out that both are in the country illegally.  Tarek is from Syria and Zainab is from Senegal.

Walter starts spending time in the city, living with Tarek and Zainab in his apartment.  He has an interest in music and finally gets Tarek to show him how to play the djembe.  Tarek takes him to a street performance and Walter starts to feel alive for the first time since his wife died.  Unfortunately, while coming home Tarek is stopped because security thinks he jumped a subway turnstile.  When it is discovered that he is an illegal alien, he is taken into custody.  Walter hires an immigration lawyer, and tells Zainab he will do everything he can for Tarek.  She doesn’t feel comfortable living by herself in the apartment with Walter, though, so she moves out.  As quickly as that, Walter is alone again.

He gets an unexpected visitor, though.  Her name is Mouna (Hiam Abbass) and she is Tarek’s mother.  She has not heard from him, so she has come from Michigan to see if he is all right.  Walter explains the situation to her.  She cannot do much because she is also in the country illegally.  She is worried because Tarek’s father was a political dissident in Syria and was killed for that.  That is why Mouna and Tarek left Syria and came to the U.S.  She fears that if he is deported back there, his connection to his father will be a great danger to him.

While waiting for Tarek’s case to come up, Walter invites Mouna to stay at the apartment with him.  They start to share their stories, and the widow and the widower start to heal each other.  They grow close.  Suddenly, a new development in Tarek’s case throws everything into question.

The casting of Jenkins was perfect because if anyone looks like a generic, uptight, boring, professor-type, it would be him.  Seeing the transition his life goes through from having met these three people is quite something.  It feels awkward when it’s supposed to, but Jenkins also completely sells it as a man who comes to be comfortable with his life being disrupted.  Through it all, his growing connection to expressing himself through playing the djembe is a sight to behold.  The final scene in the film is very moving.

People that are ideologically predisposed to see illegal immigrants as evil will probably not like this film because it first treats them as human beings and second presents a situation where all but the most hard-hearted will probably sympathize with them to an extent.  For everyone else, I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Excellent review. I haven't seen this movie but I really love Jenkins, he has delivered so many briliant performances. I didn't even know he was in Hannah and her Sisters, though I saw this movie few times.

    1. Thanks. I also hadn't remembered him in that movie at first, but when I saw it on his IMDB page I flashed on him. I don't remember him in Silverado, though. Since The Visitor he has gone on to give good supporting turns again in Let Me In and Friends With Benefits.

    2. He was really good in Let me in, Friends with Benefits and even shit like Eat Pray Love, but he should really be lead more often.

    3. I have to admit - I am surprised that he hasn't had more leading roles since The Visitor. I'm not sure if he preferred going back to doing what he was more used to, or if studios just see him as only a supporting actor.