Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Visitor

Written and Directed by: Tom McCarthy

Richard Jenkins crafts an understated, endlessly fascinating character study out of Walter Vale in Tom McCarthy's The Visitor. He's the kind of person who can move mountains of celluloid with the slightest nod, and seems so expressionless that, when he finally does smile, you can't help but smile with him.

Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a college professor stuck in the same class he's been teaching all his life but never cared about. He flunks a student's late paper without ever bothering to ask what the kid's "personal reasons" were for the tardy submission, though perhaps more out of self-loathing than any strictness on his part. One day a colleague informs Vale he has to go to New York City to give a conference on the book he co-authored. Vale tries to come up with some lame excuses before finally admitting that he only put his name on the book as a favor and has no clue how to give a lecture on it.

But go he must, and soon Vale walks into his apartment in New York, goes to the bathroom, and finds an African girl taking a bath. Her boyfriend Tarek rushes in threatening Vale before the befuddled professor finally manages to spit out that the couple is in his apartment. Tarek, a Syrian djembe player, and Zainab, a jewelry maker from Senegal, are both illegal immigrants who got swindled by an opportunist who dumped them in an empty apartment. The couple packs their things to go, but Walter stops them and invites them to come back in and stay.

Walter slowly changes while living with his new friends. On his way to deliver a lecture written by someone else for a book he didn't really co-author, he stops in a park and listens to two street performers drumming on plastic buckets. Vale watches for a moment, then barely bobs his head momentarily along with the beat. Jenkins turns this simple gesture into almost a plot point without calling attention to it. Soon he comes alive for perhaps the first time in his life. Tarek teaches him to play the djembe, while Zainab slowly warms up to Walter as she learns to trust him. Before long Walter can play full songs with Tarek, and the look of pure elation on his face feels natural yet transcendent.

Around the midpoint of the film immigration officials arrest Tarek and place him in detention, which drives Walter to do everything in his power to get his best friend free. A fourth major character joins the film, Tarek's mother Mouna. This could have been a death trap in the form of a contrived romance, but McCarthy steers above such pitfalls. Walter and Mouna do bond however; both know lives of unfulfillment and form a tight bond. You get the sense that a romance could develop between the two, but we are fortunately never rushed into it.

The ending of the film likewise avoids the cliché of the "happy ending." Instead we get a moment of simple poignancy that reaffirms Vale's new outlook on life, even in the midst of hardship. While the film may drag a bit in the middle, its understatement and resonance more than makes up for any shortcomings. Though Jenkins will get the lion's share of the kudos, all 4 of the actor possess a terrific on-screen charisma as individuals and within the small ensemble. The Visitor came and went with little fanfare this year, but there's a lot to love in this little film, and I highly recommend it.

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