Sunday, February 22, 2009

Movie Review: At Home with "The Visitor"

Quiet, spare, sweet, funny, heart-wrenching, gentle, revitalizing -- all words that come to mind when watching writer/director Tom McCarthy's second film, "The Visitor". This little indie flick and character study latched on in the theatres this spring and just kept chugging along as it pulled viewers into the story of Walter Vale, a middle-aged college professor in Connecticut whose life has settled into a form of stasis following the death of his wife, a concert pianist. Walter's life is disrupted upon discovering Tarek and Zainab, two illegal immigrants who are victims of a real estate scam and are living in his apartment in New York City. What follows is a look at how the lives of these three, together with Tarek's mother Mouna, are enriched by the others even as they are pulled apart by the faceless and implacable bureaucracy of the immigration system.

***Minor Spoiler Alert***

The core of the film is a brilliantly moving and restrained performance by Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale (personal disclosure -- I've known Dick since I was 9 and couldn't be happier for him that he landed this role and the accolades that have gone with it, including an Academy Award nomination for "Best Actor"). To watch Walter evolve from a man going through the motions, existing but not living, to a man who realizes that he can connect again, who can feel passion for something (playing the djembe) and someone (Tarek, Zainab, and most importantly, Mouna) again is a study in the actor's subtle craft.

With him step for step are Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira, who play Tarek, a young, Syrian musician and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab, respectively. While Walter is shocked at their appearance in his apartment, they are no less frightened of him. Sleiman and Gurira carry us along with their fear, driven by their illegal status in the U.S., followed by their gradual trust and acceptance of Walter in their lives and then, eventually, their dependence upon him as Tarek is arrested and threatened with deportation after being arrested for a minor infraction that he didn't actually commit. Sleiman especially presents a varied, strong performance as Tarek, ranging from his aggression spurred by fear when Walter arrives at the apartment to his affection for Zainab and love of his music to his anger, frustration and helplessness once swept up into the immigration system.

However, it is Hiam Abbass' performance as Mouna, Tarek's mother, that truly matches Jenkins' in every way. She and Jenkins together present a pair both damaged from loss and largely unconnected to the world around them who discover how to reconnect and move into a fragile courtship. I'd never seen Abbass perform before but she's a lovely, grounded presence in "The Visitor" whose emergence from her wounded shell is heart-breaking. Pairing her with Jenkins was a brilliant bit of casting by McCarthy.

In making "The Visitor", McCarthy strips away much of the filler that would be used by other directors. When Walter approaches Tarek and Zainab on the street with a photo they forgot in the rush to leave his apartment, the conversation is short and spare and it makes perfect sense that the next scene is of the three of them back in his apartment. There's no need to see the conversation with Walter inviting them to stay, saying "no, really, it's no trouble at all" and then hauling bags and baskets back up the stairs. As Walter begins to feel attraction to Mouna, he buys new, more stylish glasses -- a small thing for many people but a big step for him -- but McCarthy doesn't draw attention to them until Mouna mentions them and Walter's pleasure at being noticed shines through. We never see Walter mulling over his glasses, picking out new frames, etc. It just happens and it makes sense. McCarthy leaves these extraneous scenes and allows the audience to follow the progress intuitively without connecting every dot. It's a pleasure to watch film-making that doesn't treat the audience as idiots who need to be led along every step.

Music is the thread that weaves throughout "The Visitor." Walter, confronted with his wife's death, feels compelled to play piano but does it without passion, as though it's boxing him in, trapping him beneath the weight of her loss and her life as a classical pianist. His teacher, played by Broadway legend Marian Seldes, reminds him to keep his hands arched like a tunnel for a train to pass through. Physically he's cramped and stuck. But as he learns the djembe from Tarek and ventures out into the world with it, you literally see Walter's body and life opening up. It sustains the connection between friends once Tarek is in detention. And the final scene, as Walter sits alone amidst the crowd in the subway, playing the djembe and letting his anger and loss and passion emerge? Pitch perfect and heart wrenching.

It's a small film, not one to play to sellout crowds or have people screaming alongside the red carpet at the awards ceremonies but it is a powerful, meaningful film. "The Visitor" is without a doubt my single favorite movie of 2008 and one that will be on my favorites list for years to come.

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