Crazy rhythms: The Visitor ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 26, 2008)

If Richard Jenkins doesn’t get an Oscar nod for his amazing performance in Thomas McCarthy’s new comedy-drama, The Visitor, I will personally picket the Academy. Jenkins absolutely owns the character of  life-tired, middle-aged widower Walter Vale. He is a Connecticut college professor who leads a life of quiet desperation; he sleepwalks through his dreary workday, and it’s obvious that any inspirational spark is long gone from a staid lesson plan more aged than his students. His personal life has become rote as well; he putters through his off-hours, halfheartedly plunking away on his late wife’s piano. Clearly, Walter needs to get out more.

When Walter travels to New York to attend a conference, he has a big surprise awaiting him at the seldom-used apartment he keeps there.  Someone has sublet his digs to a Syrian immigrant named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira). After some initially awkward moments, the forlorn Walter invites the couple to stay rather than turning them out on the street.

As friendship blossoms between the three, Walter begins to emerge from his cocoon, prompted by Tarek’s infectious enthusiasm for pounding out joyful rhythms on his African djembes. Before he knows it, Walter is loosening his tie and joining Tarek in a drum circle. When Tarek ends up at a detention center, Walter hires a lawyer and becomes even more ensconced in the couple’s lives. Add one more unexpected “visitor” to the mix…Tarek’s widowed mother Mouna (Israeli actress Hiam Abbass), and all the elements are in place for The Reawakening of Walter Vale.

Thanks to Jenkins’ subtle, quietly compelling performance, that transformation is the heart of the film, and an absolute joy to behold. Although he has over 70 films to his credit (mostly supporting roles, but always memorable), he is probably most recognizable for his portrayal of the “late” father in HBO’s popular series, Six Feet Under.

Abbass is a revelation here as well; she and Jenkins play off each other in sublime fashion . In fact, no one in the cast hits a false note;  likely due to the fact that McCarthy is an actor’s director (he himself remains active in front of the camera as well, most recently playing a troubled newspaper reporter in the final season of HBO’s The Wire).

The “strange bedfellows” setup of the narrative may resemble The Goodbye Girl or The Odd Couple, but this not a glib Neil Simon play, where characters throw perfectly timed zingers at each other; these are people who feel, and interact like real human beings. There is humor, but also heartbreak and melancholy. The important thing is that it is all perfectly balanced, and beautifully nuanced.

Although the circumstances leading up to Tarek’s detention could be viewed as an allusion to the Kafkaesque scenarios faced by immigrants in a post 9-11 world, McCarthy doesn’t get preachy or use his film as a polemic. In fact, this movie has more in common with the keen social observations of Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things or the gentle observational satire of Bill Forsyth’s low key culture-clash comedy Local Hero than, say, The Road to Guantanamo.

One thing I will say-if the overwrought and vastly overrated Crash (2005) could win Best Picture, then surely The Visitor, which deals with many of the same themes, and in a less histrionic and more palatable manner, deserves consideration as well (we shall see). In the meantime, you don’t want to miss this lovely little gem.

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