Monday, October 20, 2008

Monday Movie Review: The Visitor

The Visitor (2007) 9/10
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a college professor, leading a solitary and empty life following the death of his wife. Visiting New York City for a conference, he meets by chance, and establishes a relationship with Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira). Tarek begins to teach Walter how to play the djembe (an African drum). Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy.

The Visitor is Thomas McCarthy's second outing as writer/director, following the exquisite The Station Agent in 2003. One could wish for him to work a little faster. He has a delicate touch with human loneliness and isolation, and a respect for difference that transcends cliché.

McCarthy has an affinity for certain character types; Tarek's insistent cheerfulness is reminiscent of Bobby Canavale's character in The Station Agent, and when we meet Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass), her steady, sorrowful gaze is reminiscent of Patricia Clarkson. But the characters aren't just types, which is really important for two reasons. First, because Uptight College Professor Who Needs to Loosen Up is kind of over. I mean over. It's just something we don't need to see anymore. On the other hand, Human Needing to Become More Human is something we will never see too much of, because it is one of life's essential narratives. Because McCarthy is so good, and because Jenkins is so so good, Walter is a human and not a type. (Jenkins, by the way, has one of the most beautiful speaking voices I can think of, it rolls and rumbles and surprises, and I could listen to him read the phone book.)

Second, it's important that Tarek and Zainab be fully human because the film largely focuses on immigration issues. If the characters have no presence as individuals, then the film is a Message Movie. The danger of polemic is high. But by the time Tarek, through no fault of his own, comes to the attention of the authorities and it's discovered that he and his girlfriend are illegal, we know them as people.

And here, in two paragraphs, we can see the reductionist version of a movie review. It's about an uptight white guy being loosened up by, not a Magical Negro, but a Magical Arab (with a Negro girlfriend). It's a political movie about the plight of illegal immigrants. It's a quirky indie about the colorful New York City life of people who drum in the park. Yes, we can do that. But we don't have to.

They say there are only seven stories. Parts of The Visitor feel familiar, but I'm going to say that's because there are only seven stories, and not because this particular version of storytelling has nothing to say. Just in terms of narrative, this film surprised me several times. I didn't think it was going to do that, and I didn't think it was going to do that.

Visually, The Visitor does some remarkable things. There's a moment of Walter's face framed in a window that is almost Kubrick; all stark white and angles. And can we go back again to Richard Jenkins? He's so himself. He's in that place where he's not acting, he's being, and if there were weaknesses in the script, that clarity of presence would overcome them.

One of interesting things about the way the story is told is that there is never any hammering about Walter's grief. It's never actually stated that he's grieving, or that his emptiness is related to his wife's death. But there are all these suggestions, and it's clear to me that Walter was one of those men who depended entirely on his wife to have warmth in his life. Without her, he has to find it himself, and mostly he fails. Listen: The movie opens with Walter taking a piano lesson. When the lesson doesn't go well, the teacher finds out she is Walter's fourth such teacher. Later, we find out that his wife was a piano teacher.

Again, no one emphasizes that note. The person I watched the movie with didn't catch it. But it's there, and it says that Walter is not an uptight priss, but someone reaching out, trying to find an opening. For him, the djembe is that opening. And once open, he is a person who cares about his friends, and so Tarek's plight has meaning to him.

A movie like The Visitor is what Netflix was made for. Most people would never get a chance to see it otherwise, and isn't it wonderful that you can?

(The Cross-Post)