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May 8, 2008

Fletch's Film Review: The Visitor

Thomas McCarthy is a busy man. Having worked his way up the acting ranks, from a bit part in Conspiracy Theory to a regular role on Boston Public all the way to supporting turns in such high-class fare as Syriana and Flags of our Fathers, he took his time in becoming a writer/director, but showed considerable promise with the 2003 indie hit The Station Agent.

He returns this years with what's setting up to be another indie hit in The Visitor. Clearly showing his past as an actor, The Visitor is an excellent character piece (but misses excellence overall) starring veteran character actor Richard Jenkins (spotlighted recently in this space).

Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a lonely widower (is there any other kind onscreen?) teaching at a cushy Connecticut university. The thing is, Walter's not doing too much teaching these days, proffing but one class while spending the rest of his time appearing to be busy and taking piano lessons, a heartfelt reminder of his deceased wife.

Some complications at work cause for Walter to attend a seminar in New York City, where he has kept an apartment for some time. Only, when he arrives, he finds a couple living in his apartment unbeknownst to him. As it turns out, the couple, immigrants from Syria and Senegal, have been misled into thinking the apartment is vacant and have no idea they are getting company. After some initial madness, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) tells Walter that he and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) will leave and find another place to stay. Walter, lonely himself and seeing that the couple has limited resources and even fewer options, invites them to stay with him until they can find a suitable option.

It doesn't take long for Walter and Tarek to form a friendship, a kinship even, as Walter takes an interest in the couple's lives, specifically in the form of learning the bongos from Tarek. Eventually, a series of unfortunate circumstances places the young couple at risk and shoves their lives into disarray. Walter, having finally been given a chance to live and feel emotion again, takes an active role in their present and future.

Jenkins is spectacular in a role tailor-made to his strengths, and Sleiman shows potential star power (and a 500-megawatt smile) as the charismatic Tarek. Gurira, meanwhile, gets considerably less of an opportunity here, as her character shies away from Walter and essentially trades places in the apartment with Tarek's mother Mouna, played wonderfully restrained by Hiam Abbass.

The Visitor isn't the kind of indie film that's going to get your attention by screaming loudly or showing off quirks; in fact, it's nearly the opposite: a quiet film filled with real human interactions that moves along with the slow pace of life. Though the end might not justify the means, which is to say that McCarthy doesn't say much about immigration except through the pain of his characters, the journey is certainly one worth going on.

Fletch's Film Rating:

"Darn tootin!"


2 people have chosen wisely: on "Fletch's Film Review: The Visitor"

Daniel G. said...

Good review, Fletch. I know we differed on Tarek and Zainab, but both found the real power in Jenkins and the underlying story.

Anonymous said...

I caught The Visitor when it was in theaters, and it was one of my favorite films of the whole year! Richard Jenkins from Six Feet Under was outstanding, and the message of friendship throughout the movie was very powerful. The Visitor will be released on DVD October 7th, and I definitely plan on buying it. If you haven't seen the movie yet, you can find more info here: thevisitorfilm.com