Visitor, The (2008): Tom McCarthy’s Tale of Culture Collision, Starring Richard Jenkins

Finally a timely political melodrama that’s enjoyable and effective thematically, and emotionally: Ator-director Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, a follow-up to his 2003 award winning directorial debut, “The Station Agent,” is a sharply written, character-driven drama.
Though not dealing specifically with 9/11 or the Iraq War, the movie benefits from its intricate and relevant culture-collision narrative that contrasts American vs. Muslim mores, the sheltered academic world with New York’s vibrant streets, older vs. younger generation, all done in a subtle exploration of four characters, which at first sight have nothing in common.

“The Visitor” world-premiered at the 2007 Toronto Film Fest (in Special Presentations), then played at the 2008 Sundance Film Fest. Overture Films will release McCarthy’s indie picture April 11.

As was evident in “The Station Agent,” as a writer, McCarthy is attracted to misfits and outsiders, characters that, thrown into extraordinary conditions by fate or chance, embark on a journey of self-discovery, gaining in the process heightened political consciousness that enable them to establish rapport and form unlikely personal and communal bonds.

Also like “Station Agent,” “The Visitor” (an accurate but not particularly appealing title) is a poignant, often funny film about rediscovering joy in the most unexpected places.

The other reason for my excitement is the tour de force performance of Richard Jenkins, better known until now as a TV actor (“Six Feet Under”) and character thespian. As the isolated widower and disillusioned Connecticut economics professor, whose life is transformed by a chance encounter in New York City, Jenkins gives an astonishingly subtle, utterly commanding performance, appearing in almost every scene. It’s always a pleasure to see character actors assume a leading role and acquitting themselves so impressively. Though it’s only March, with some luck and memory (and marketing help from distributor Overture Features) Jenkins should be remember at year’s end during the Oscar season–his work is that good.

Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a 62-year-old university professor who’s been sleepwalking through his life. Having lost his passion for teaching economics and writing, Walter fills the void by unsuccessfully trying to learn to play classical piano. In the first scene, an exasperated piano teacher (Marian Seldes), his fourth in a row, tells Walter point blank that he has no natural gift for the instrument. Walter has decided not to take any more classes, and his instructor now wishes to buy his piano.

When Walter’s (unnamed) college sends him to Manhattan to attend a Global Development conference, he goes to his old, seldom used West Village flat. To his surprise, the place is now inhabited by a young couple who has taken up residence through a contact named Ivan.

Obviously the victims of a real estate scam, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a young handsome Syrian, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his beautiful new Senegalese girlfriend, have nowhere to go. In the first of a series of tests and acts of generosity that will follow, Walter allows the couple to stay with him–at least for a while.

Touched by his kindness, Tarek, a talented musician, insists on teaching the aging academic to play the African drum. The emotionally detached widower (still wearing his wedding ring) and the father of a grown-up son (who’s never seen in the film), cordially agrees, though clearly he’s quite doubtful about his musical talents. There’s a nice scene, in which Walter catches Tarek off guard in his underwear, while practicing the drum with enviable passion.

Gradually, Tarek’s buoyant personality and the instrument’s exuberant rhythms begin to revitalize Walters faltering spirit, opening his eyes to a vibrant world of local jazz clubs and Central Park drum circles that exist right around the corner from him. A tentative friendship evolves between the two men and Zainab, and over several music and dinner sessions, the differences in culture, age, and temperament, first presenting obvious obstacles, start to fall away and even disappear.

Suspense kicks in when, out of the blue, Tarek is stopped by the police in an Upper West Side subway station, with a bewildered Walter watching the cruel scene in disbelief. Walter’s protests that Tarek is innocent are of course useless. The youngster is arrested as an undocumented citizen, an illegal alien subject to deportation.

As his situation turns desperate, Walter finds himself compelled to help his new friend with a passion he thought he had long ago lost. He pays for a lawyer, visits Tarek regularly, and mediates between him and Zainab, who obviously can’t go there by herself. When Tarek’s attractive mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass), also a widow, arrives from Michigan unexpectedly in search of her son, the professor’s personal commitment develops into an unlikely mature romance.

In the film’s second half, politics (and the younger protags) are pushed to the side and the saga depicts a series of dates between Walter and Mouna, though periodically, Walter visits Tarek at the detention center and take Mouna to see the place from the outside.

Though largely uncompromising, and refusing to settle for a neat happy ending, “The Visitor” gets softer as it goes along, largely due to McCarthy’s genuinely humanistic and basically upbeat approach. The last scene, which cannot be disclosed here, set in a subway station, doesn’t ring entirely true, though I perfectly understand McCarthy’s motivation as helmer not to conclude his saga during the previous scene, at an airport.

Despite these shortcomings, the movie is extremely well acted, emotionally touching, and philosophically positive, which seems ironic (but is not), considering the harsh surrounding political realities. Though not an overtly message film, “The Visitor” demonstrates vividly that it’s never too late to change, that through random situations if we are open-minded enough to embrace them–newfound connections with virtual strangers awaken us, just as they do for Walter, to a new worldview and a new life.

Among other achievements, McCarthy proves wrong the often-quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s saying: “There are no second chapters in American lives.” “The Visitor” demonstrates vividly and compellingly that there areand potentially better, more fulfilling than the first acts.

Cast

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins)
Mouna (Hiam Abbass)
Tarek (Haaz Sleiman)
Zainab (Danai Gurira)

Credits

An Overture Films release of a Participant Productions, Groundswell Prods. presentation, in association with Next Wednesday.
Produced by Mary Jane Skalski, Michael London. Executive producers, Omar Amanat, Jeff Skoll, Ricky Strauss, Chris Salvaterra.
Directed, written by Tom McCarthy.
Camera: Oliver Bokelberg.
Editor: Tom McArdle.
Music: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; music supervisor, Mary Ramos.
Production designer: John Paino.
Art director: Len Clayton.
Set decorator: Kim Chapman.
Costume designer: Melissa Toth.
Makeup: Stacey Panepinto.
Sound: Damian Canelos.

Running time: 103 Minutes.