Thursday, May 7, 2009

Film Review: The Visitor

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Visitor, written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, is surprisingly enjoyable. The story is nothing especially original--it’s about a withdrawn man who learns to care about others and enjoy life again--but McCarthy doesn’t sentimentalize things, and he uses his cross-cultural spin on the material to keep the details fresh. He also gets terrific performances from his cast, particularly from Richard Jenkins, the veteran character actor in the lead.

Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a sixtyish economics professor at Connecticut College. Using a book project as a pretext, he cuts his teaching load down to one class, but he never does any writing, and he recycles his lecture notes for the one course he does teach. Walter is so disengaged that, about a month into the semester, a student has to remind him to issue a syllabus. His colleagues don’t interest him, he couldn’t care less about his students, and he has no friends. The interiors of his home in New London are so immaculately kept that it’s hard to believe anyone lives there. He is like a ghost walking through his own life.

Walter is a widower, and it becomes clear that he has never completely gotten over to his wife’s death. She was a professional concert pianist who also enjoyed a recording career, and Walter constantly plays her CDs whenever he’s at home alone. He has also resolved to learn to play the piano himself. But he has no aptitude for it, and after going through five instructors, he still struggles with such basics as keeping one’s fingers curved while playing. His inability to let go of his wife shows in other ways: he still wears his wedding band, and he has held on to the two-bedroom walk-up they owned in Manhattan.

Walter hasn’t been to New York in ages, but when a medical situation prevents a colleague from attending a conference there, he reluctantly agrees to go in her stead. After arriving, he discovers that a young couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), are living in his apartment--a con artist had taken advantage of his absence to rent it to the pair. Walter agrees to let them stay until they can find another place, and he becomes friends with Tarek, a charming, guileless Syrian who plays the African djembe drum in a local jazz band. Walter becomes fascinated by the instrument, and before long, he has a djembe of his own, having a high old time practicing with Tarek in the apartment and playing with other drummers in Central Park.

Richard Jenkins earned a deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work here, and he gives a subtle, carefully modulated performance. His portrayal of Walter’s dourness in the film’s early sections is perfection: slumped shoulders, slightly stooped walk, and a manner of speaking that suggests an impatience to get to both the end of the sentence and the conversation. The strength of his performance is in how he uses these details as a foundation for the character--they’re his default position. He never abandons them, and the counterpoint they create with his happiness with the drums and Tarek’s friendship is obvious. They also provide an effective contrast to the concern and anger he shows after Tarek, who is in the country illegally, is arrested and turned over to immigration authorities. The most striking aspect of Jenkins’ performance is the way he uses Walter’s sullen mannerisms to suggest that they’re his way of conforming to a routinized existence. Walter intuitively knows where the line is drawn, and it gives an added edge to his most demonstrative scene, in which he rages at a detention facility’s waiting-room staff for their unhelpfulness, all while keeping the mandated distance from their desk area. Everything is within the rules, even when he loses control of himself.

Jenkins is provided with able support by Haaz Sleiman, who gives Tarek an open-faced charm that allows the viewer a more acute sense of the shift in Walter’s personality. Sleiman’s presence highlights Walter’s stuffiness, but it also brings Walter’s transition to happiness out in stark relief. He may seem too trusting and friendly towards Walter, but the extent of his na├»vete is deliberate on Thomas McCarthy’s part. The difference between his attitude and Zaineb’s wariness towards Walter is so sharply etched that McCarthy clearly intends the viewer to see Tarek as something of a fool. But to McCarthy’s credit, he never invites one to look down on Tarek; he and Sleiman take one right inside the character’s feelings, whether it’s with his high spirits while performing or his frustration and terror during his incarceration.

The other two principal cast members deserve mention. It may seem that Danai Gurira isn’t given much to do as Zaineb. Most of Zaineb’s scenes show her being suspicious of Walter and impatient with Tarek, but McCarthy allows Gurira to hit some subtle effects, namely in how she seems to effortlessly convey Zaineb’s growing trust of Walter in the film’s second half. And Hiam Abbass, who plays Tarek’s mother, has extraordinary presence. Her manner is quite reserved, but it speaks loudly of the character’s pride and strength. She provides a strong complement to Jenkins’ Walter in the second half, and it’s quite satisfying to see the mother and Walter develop a rapport.

Thomas McCarthy gets wonderful work out of his ensemble, and he does a terrific job of realizing the story beyond them. One is especially taken with how enjoyably he evokes the New York milieu and its multicultural aspects. The nuances in some of the scenes are occasionally off. It's usually in ways that lead one to expect the scnes to conclude in a manner that never comes to pass, but he gets everything at the right pitch in most of the others. There are also times when his precision is almost uncanny. He doesn't overplay the visual joke of having the stuffy WASP Walter playing alongside the mostly African drummers in Central Park, and he never gives too much emphasis to certain dramatic touches, such as having as Walter look away while he presses a letter against the detention-center glass for Tarek to read. In these scenes and others, the dramatization is just right. The film is also superbly paced, and McCarthy never loses touch with the emotional core of the material.

The picture eschews a happy ending, at least in terms of the plot. Tarek’s story doesn’t end well, and Walter loses the new people in his life almost as quickly as he found them. But the film isn’t about finding happiness so much as it is about dealing with loss. The people in one’s life are never going to be a constant; the only constant can be one’s attitude towards life. To borrow the film’s key metaphor, one must always maintain the beat. The ending has Walter losing everyone important in his life once again, but this time, he’s not going to let that beat go--either figuratively or literally. He's found a triumph that rises from loss.

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