The Visitor – Movie ReviewFebruary 15, 2009 Written by JP [Font too small?]
Have you ever watched a movie and seen an actor who looks really familiar, but you just couldn’t place him or remember his name? You think to yourself, “I’ve seen this guy before in lots of films, but which ones”? Such performers are often referred to as “character actors”. One of the best contemporary character actors is Richard Jenkins. At the tender age of 61, he’s finally getting some much deserved attention and a leading role.
In the past, Richard Jenkins was probably best known for his role in the HBO dramatic series Six Feet Under. He played a dead father who kept coming back from beyond the grave to visit his family. I probably remember Richard best for a small, but memorable role as the creepy psychiatrist in the hilarious comedy, There’s Something About Mary. But now, I think he’ll be remembered for something considerably different: his Academy Award nominated performance in The Visitor.
In the film, he plays a university professor named Walter Vale who is simply going through the motions of living. He teaches only one economics course, but his heart isn’t into it. There’s also a book that’s supposedly in the works, but that too is a sham. These are all activities to keep up appearances and fill his otherwise empty days. But that all changes when he’s forced to go to New York City to give a presentation at an academic conference.
Upon arriving in NYC in the middle of the night, Walter enters his old apartment that he used to share with his now deceased wife. But something is wrong. He notices fresh flowers in a vase. How could this be? He hasn’t been to the city in years. Walter delves deeper into his old residence. It all seems normal, until he sees a light on behind the bathroom door. He opens the door and a lady, a complete stranger, is in his bathtub! She screams! He screams! And moments later an unknown man charges him, accusing him of breaking into “their” apartment!
Who are these people? Why are they there? How is it that they claim this is their home? It turns out that couple, a Syrian drum musician named Tarek and a Senegalese jewelry designer, named Zainab, were the victims of a rental scam. At first, Walter wants them gone. He doesn’t need this kind of upheaval in his life. But something about this couple pierces his frozen heart. Maybe it’s the excitement of being exposed to something new and exotic. Or maybe his soul thirsts for a cup of humanity – an opportunity to do something unexpected and kind for a change. So Walter allows the couple to stay with him until they can make other arrangements.
This decision will bring big and small changes to all of their lives. For starters, Walter takes an unexpected interest in the African drum (that Tarek plays), which further opens him up to the possibility of abandoning his stoic ways.
At this point in the film, I settled in to this pleasant story of personal transformation and the coming together of different cultures. But then the film takes a hard turn. Tarek is arrested on a technicality in a subway station. This understandably destroys Zainab (Tarek’s girlfriend), but it also rocks Walter’s world. The reality of being alive again has shifted from the joyful aspects to the painful spectrum of life’s palette.
The Visitor is the second film written and directed by Tom McCarthy. His first project was a personal favorite of mine, The Station Agent. It took Tom almost five years to get this film made. I’m glad he succeeded. It’s a fine and moving film. The performance by Richard Jenkins is truly deserving of all the recognition it has received (he’s been nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award, an Independent Spirit Award and he recently won a National Board of Review Award). One of the beautiful things about this motion picture is that all the performances that surround the lead character are also spot on.
I also liked the fact that the film presents a socially conscious message in a pretty evenhanded manner. If this film were in hands of a lesser filmmaker, it may have felt heavy handed or manipulative. Not here. At it’s core it’s a story about the lives of these human beings, rather than a film that plays politics. That’s a fine line to walk and I believe it’s done well here.
The Visitor is Rated PG-13 for a few instances of strong language. I think it’s appropriate for older children and anyone who’s interested in the subject matter. Beyond that, this might also make for a good film to discuss among parents and children. Important issues are raised here that may open the door to meaningful dialogue between families and friends.
Both The Visitor and The Station Agent are currently available on DVD. I recommend them both. If you have the opportunity to see either of these films, I’d value knowing your opinion about them.
Posted in Movies