The Visitor (2007)
This is a nation that was built by immigrants. Most of us have grandparents or perhaps great grandparents who left their ancestral homeland to come here. What drew them was the prospect of creating a better life for those in their family that would follow them. Waves of people came here from all over the globe; Ireland, Poland, Spain, China and Russia to name just a small number. When the country was still expanding from one coast to another there was more than enough opportunity to go around but still the new arrivals frequently found themselves the objects of prejudice. Signs such as ‘No Irish need apply’ were common place with one nationality after another being targeted. As one group gained social acceptance another would take their place as a class below the rest. Now the political and social climate of this country as radically changed. With the economy spirally down, jobs being lost and social services strained to the breaking point many citizens feel that we should close our borders to outsiders. Especially targeted are those from Mexico or the war torn nations in Africa who like our ancestors are looking for a place to make a better life for their families. There have been more films about the plight of immigrants that could easily be counted but now one has come out that change the way this topic is handled. ‘The Visitor’ by film maker Thomas McCarthy is a deeply emotional drama that represents a major departure from the typical Hollywood movie. This is one of the finest examples of what an independent film should be. It is story telling at its best with an honest and frequently raw look at a serious problem that today’s society faces. True to the founding nature of Indy films this one was obviously made by a cast and crew fully devoted to their craft and the quality it can achieve. This is a purely human movie that will reach out and touch you on an emotional level. It has been a long time since cinema has brought a film like this out. So many independent films are made for pure shock value or follow such a well defined formula that when one like this comes along it is a rare treat. This is certain to make its mark at award season. Anchor Bay has brought this out in both DVD and Blu-ray formats so it can be recognized by the wide audience it so richly deserves.
The writer and director for this film is Thomas McCarthy. If you saw a picture of him you would recognize him from his many years as a character actor. He has been on numerous television shows with a regular role on ‘Boston Public’ and ‘The Wire’. This is only the second feature film he has done, the first being a poignant look at a lonely man with dwarfism, ‘The Station Agent’. Between that film and this one it does appear that McCarthy has a fantastic new career ahead of him. He must have been paying attention to the writers and directors he worked for since he has crafted something truly special here. He wrote this script with the actors in mind giving a nod to the profession that has supported him for most of his career. It is a character driven story that does not require special effects or shocking twists to make a point. Fellow character actor extraordinaire Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a college economics professor. He is still reeling emotionally from the loss of his beloved wife of many years. With great reluctance he agrees to return from his home in Connecticut to give a talk at New York University. He and his wife have maintained an apartment in New York for a long time although they infrequently used it. When Walter decides to check in on it he discovers, much ot his surprise, that it is inhabited. Two immigrants, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira) have been duped into renting the place. He is outraged that the space he shared with his late wife has been violated and demands they pack up and leave immediately. Once they are on the street something begins to change in Walter and he invites them to stay at least for the short term until permanent accommodations can be made.
Walter strikes up a friendship with the outgoing and friendly Tarek. Things with Zainab are different though. She is sullen and suspicious and it takes a lot on the part of Tarek to hold the three of them together. Tarek is a drummer which fascinates Walter. Soon he learns the African style of drumming from his new friend and even goes so far as to join a drum circle in Central Park with him. The pair is a study in contrasts. Tarek is usually dressed in tee-shirts always casual. Walter is the picture of the displaced professor in his tween jackets and buttoned shirts. The change that started with Walter’s allowing the couple to stay in his apartment continues. Walter finds that there is a wide and beautiful world outside the safety and comforts of his academic life. He has always been surrounded by others like himself, bookish and interested in their small sliver of knowledge. Now he gets to not only see life from a different perspective he is participating in it. Eventually Tarek is arrested for being illegal. He is taken to a detention center run by a corporation hired by the government. Initially Walter is the only connection that Tarek is able to maintain with the outside world. Even that is broken as he slides down the rabbit hole of Home Land security and the maze of bureaucracy that controls its actions. The next act of the story takes a turn when Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass) comes to help find her son. A relationship begins between her and Walter than is gentle and caring. Walter had lost his ability to feel when his wife died but now a new humanity is rising up in him.
Richard Jenkins is a face that is instantly familiar to most of the audience. He has been a hard working character actor for decades now and has been a regular on television series like ‘Six Feet Under’. He has worked with some of the greatest directors in the business and has learned a great deal from each of them. This is one of the first time he has been afforded the opportunity to take center stage as the leading man. The thing about a talented character actor is he is expert at portraying the subtle qualities of a role. He can bring staggering emotional impact to a scene with the way he moves his hand or holds his head. Jenkins has made a career out of finding these quirky traits we all have and present them to the viewers in a low key fashion. He is nothing short of perfection in his portrayal here. This film is the Holy Grail for character actors giving them a chance to move out of the background to the lime light.
Anchor Bay has been dedicated to bringing little independent gems like this to as broad an audience as possible. The film was the darling of the festival circuit and now you can bring it home to enjoy. The DVD edition is great but if you happen to have a Blu-ray setup go that way. The high definition video and incredible audio makes you feel like you are there in the scene with the actors. Many films have a commentary track but the one here is among the best I have ever heard. McCarthy and Jenkins not only go into details of what it took to make this film a reality they are two men with similar backgrounds who have joined forces to break away from the mold. There are also some deleted scenes, a making of featurette and a lesson in playing the djembe. This is a must have part of any serious collection and is a movie that you will not forget.