Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Visitor

Challenged by my friend Hollie to see this quiet indie flick, I headed back to my new favorite theater in Culver City. I was pleasantly surprised to be mesmerized by the measured tale of a widowed professor who finds his long vacant New York apartment inhabited by a young foreign couple. Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who also was the creative force behind The Station Agent, The Visitor works best as a deft and delicate character study. When it ventures into the arena of political and social issues, it tends to feel forced and heavy-handed--but thankfully that is just a minor part of the film.

The major part of the movie is the story of Walter Vale, played with understated grace by veteran character actor Richard Jenkins. Walter is rigid, uncompromising and completely detached--and stuck in the deepest of ruts. When he is tasked with presenting a paper at a conference in New York City, he arrives to find his old apartment has been subleased illegally to Syrian immigrant Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegali girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). In a completely uncharacteristic gesture of outreach and generosity, Walter allows the couple to stay at his apartment. This act leads to a gentle and gradual metamorphosis of Walter from insulated and isolated to involved and evolved.

This could be played in a hackneyed, trite way. It could also come across as completely disingenuous. But to the credit of Jenkins pitch perfect performance, aided and abetted by the charismatic and ingratiating presence of Sleiman as drummer Tarek, Walter's transformation is entirely believable. There are no glib lines or snappy banter--this film captures beautifully the awkwardness and trepidation of people negotiating the process of going from mere strangers to fellow human beings--perhaps even friends. There are some contrivances in the script--such as when Tarek's mother Mouna (luminously played by Hiam Abbass) announces she always wanted to see The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and lo and behold Walter arranges to take her-- but the talents of the actors override any and all weaknesses.

As I mentioned before, when the film veers into political and social discourse--as it turns out that Tarek, Zainab and Mouna are all illegal immigrants--it loses its traction. To be sure, the immigration policies and practices of this country deserve close inspection and most likely a major overhaul. Using Tarek and Zainab and Mouna's story to illustrate these issues and engender empathy from an audience is a noble goal, but ultimately it paints a very simplistic picture of a very complex situation. It's all very believable to witness Walter's transformation as Tarek teaches him to play the drums or he sees the passion between the young couple or he is charmed by the noble strength and beauty of Mouna. It's easy to derive sympathy for the immigrants plight when they are attractive, artistic and fluent in English. But what if Walter had arrived in New York City to find his apartment inhabited by an entire family of non-English speaking Hispanic immigrants? Would he have been as sympathetic to their plight? Would the viewing audience been moved to take up the issue of immigration reform in that case?

Fortunately, the film succeeds because it's not as much as immigration issues but about our humanity and need to connect. As the singular nature of the title suggests, it's not the young immigrant squatter who are "the visitor," but Walter himself. Like a world-weary traveler, he never quite settles down or settles in. He exists in his world without inhabiting it. And when he comes into contact with people who are passionately living their lives despite the tenuousness of their situation, he finds a purpose--a sense of self and a home within his own soul.


  1. Hooray. I'm so glad you liked it. I saw "wanted" when I went back to Texas. Glad matinees there only cost $3.00. Not a great film. Next up on my list is Wall-E.

  2. Thanks for the heads up. I thought Wanted looked like a train wreck (no pun intended) from the trailer, but critics are raving about it. You just saved me $6.00!!!

    Hear great things about Wall-E, but I'm waiting until the kiddie crowds die down.