‘The Visitor’ is a small film worth finding
What a perfect opportunity to see what I consider one of the best movies so far in 2008. Usually, these so-called “independent movies” are relegated to getting released after the summer blockbuster season and not before. Maybe the studio is hoping that those who can’t get in to see the latest “Indiana Jones” flick or “Iron Man” will give Thomas McCarthy’s “The Visitor” a chance. And you know what? You should.
What a follow-up, too, after McCarthy’s critically acclaimed 2003 debut, “The Station Agent.” In a movie that parallels today’s headlines, “The Visitor” proves in one screening the ability of how one person can change the lives of many, and in the process end up changing his own life for the better.
With a relatively unknown cast led by character actor Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor” hopefully will change the status of all the actors involved. If Jenkins looks familiar, chances are you’ve seen him on HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and in secondary roles in the movies “Flirting With Disaster” and “There’s Something About Mary.”
Here, he gets to play the lead character, and what a performance. The movie opens with Jenkins playing Walter Vale, a 62-year-old professor of economics in Connecticut who has all but given up on life. He recently lost his wife, has lost interest in his studies and has no close friends to turn to.
He isn’t keen on traveling, but when he’s required to present a paper on globalization in New York, he reluctantly agrees to attend. Walter and his late wife kept a barely used West Village apartment in Manhattan, so imagine his shock when he finds out that a couple has been staying at his place. The two are illegal immigrants who have been renting the place and never realized that they were victims caught up in a real-estate scam. Things could have gotten confrontational at this point but Walter, knowing that the couple would be homeless, offers to let them stay until they can find a place of their own. The couple are played beautifully by Haaz Sleiman, as Tarek from Syria, and Danai Gurira as Zainab, his girlfriend from Senegal.
As gesture of thanks, Tarek, who is an accomplished percussionist, offers lessons to Walter on the African drum. This turns out to be very therapeutic for the somewhat uptight Walter. Soon, he’s even jamming with Tarek, and Walter discovers that there is actually someone human inside of him.
Writer/director McCarthy has a gift for writing about the upside of people, when it is so easy to be cynical and question the agenda that some have. When Tarek is arrested and placed into a detention center, it is Walter who intercedes, tackling both the U.S. Immigration Service as well as the Office of Homeland Security, while Tarek’s distraught girlfriend wonders what is in store for them next. And when Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), arrives from Detroit to help out, she, too, is taken under the kind wing of Walter. He’s the last peron she would expect to offer any type of help.
As a filmmaker, McCarthy never gets preachy or oversensitive with his subject. No. Instead, he reels the viewer in, almost as if you were the next-door neighbor listening in on everything going on but too afraid to get involved, only to realize that by taking such a bold step, the world, unlike some of its inhabitants, could be a far better place to occupy.
Thank goodness for movies like this. Richard Jenkins finally deserves recognition for the years he has honed his skills as an actor. Is it too early to whisper “Oscar,” what with the year not even half-over yet?
– Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv comedy club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout Northern California and Nevada, including Sirius Radio. He hosts “Howie’s Morning Rush” on Tahoe’s KRLT radio, and you can see his film reviews on RSN. For past reviews, blogs and audio clips, visit http://www.HowieNave.com.