February 15, 2009

Written by Jeff Giles

The Visitor (20th Century Fox)

Director: Tom McCarthy

Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass

Movies about lonely, disaffected older men have never exactly been out of vogue in Hollywood, but over the last 15 years or so, they’ve been seemingly more popular than ever – from Paul Newman (1994’s Nobody’s Fool) to Jack Nicholson (2002’s About Schmidt), graying actors have courted critical greatness by starring in dramas with varying degrees of uplift. (Bill Murray is the standard-bearer of this subgenre, thanks to his roles in Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers.)

Now, veteran character actor Richard Jenkins – one of those “that guy” actors you’ve seen in everything from The Witches of Eastwick to Step Brothers – has found his own lonely older guy project: The Visitor, a small, graceful drama written and directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent). It won some festival awards and earned a stack of glowing reviews during its original limited run, and now, thanks to a Best Actor nomination for Jenkins in this year’s Academy Awards, it’s enjoying a whole new round of buzz – and so is Jenkins.

The attention is deserved – after a lifetime of supporting roles, Jenkins finally gets his chance to truly shine in The Visitor, and he knocks it out of the park, using all of the film’s 104 minutes to peel away his character’s layers with a quiet performance that’s almost Newmanesque in its finely shaded understatement. Jenkins plays Connecticut college professor Walter Vale, who begins the picture as a bit of a douche – in the opening scenes, he fires his piano teacher and curtly dismisses a student’s pleas for mercy – and such a wet noodle that by the time he’s strong-armed into traveling to New York to present a paper he co-authored in name only, you may be wondering how and why he deserves his own movie.

It’s when he reaches the city, of course, that things start to get interesting. Upon entering his New York apartment – which he’s had for 25 years, but rarely visits – Vale is alarmed to discover a woman (Danai Gurira) in his tub and her enraged boyfriend (Haaz Sleiman) thundering down the hallway, demanding to know what he’s doing there. As he quickly discovers, the couple has been subletting his apartment from a person named Ivan, despite the fact that Walter doesn’t know Ivan, and Ivan has no right to make the arrangement. Rather than allow his surprise tenants to wander the streets looking for a new place to live, Walter allows them to stay – a decision that, if you know your movies, you will not be surprised to discover has life-altering effects.

At first, Walter’s decision to share his apartment seems like one of those nutty, spur-of-the-moment plot twists that screenwriters live and die by, but that’s just McCarthy being cagey; as the viewer slowly discovers, Walter had a different kind of life before the movie started, and he has reasons for doing this that he doesn’t fully understand until later in the film. He’s most immediately won over by Tarek, the djembe-playing boyfriend – and thanks to Sleiman’s wonderfully charming performance, it’s easy for the audience to understand why. Walter is fascinated by Tarek’s drumming, and they bond over lessons; with each strike of the djembe, Walter thaws, until, in a wonderful sequence, he finds himself joining a drum circle in the park. It’s a scene that works on several levels, whether you choose to interpret it as a metaphor for the community-building power of music or simply a turning point for the movie.

Of course, chance encounters can be good or bad – something McCarthy reminds us in The Visitor’s second act, when Walter is called upon to help Tarek out of a sudden, terrible predicament. The ways he answers this call, and the completion of his transformation from closed circuit to human conduit, are best left out of this review; suffice it to say The Visitor is a beautifully tender drama built out of small, warm moments, with some profound things to say about the possibilities buried in every stranger you pass on the street. It’s sort of the anti-Death Wish, offering a glimpse of city life that’s rife with hope and brotherhood. Jenkins has said he’s waited his entire professional career to be a part of something like The Visitor, and after watching the film, you’ll be as glad as he is that the opportunity presented itself.

The DVD comes with a small assortment of bonus features, including an “inside look” (4:35) that offers a surface glimpse of the film that’ll probably be most useful for someone who hasn’t seen the movie. More enjoyable is “Playing the Djembe,” a look at the instrument’s profound importance in the film – starting with McCarthy’s lessons, and continuing through Sleiman’s experiences playing with a New York jazz combo during scenes for the film. There’s also an entertaining commentary track from McCarthy and Jenkins, and a few deleted scenes that don’t add much to the film. Not a ton of extra content, but the studio had to leave something for the inevitable double-disc special edition, right?

Read more articles and reviews by Jeff Giles at Popdose.

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