Five years ago, character actor Thomas McCarthy came out with his directorial debut, “The Station Agent.” The film, a character tragicomedy starring Peter Dinklage as a lonely dwarf who lives alone in a train station, was one of the best of the year and quickly became one of this critic’s favorite films of all time. McCarthy proved a talent of bringing little known actors to the screen and showcasing their terrific abilities beyond the limits of the common character actor. His newest film, “The Visitor,” is a singularly wondrous independent character drama that features fantastic performances and guarantees McCarthy’s talent.
In a career performance Richard Jenkins shines as Walter Vale, a curmudgeonly widower who lives a bored life as a professor at a prestigious Connecticut college. Walter is an emotionally trapped man, not completely over the death of his wife and still not able to cope with loneliness. He tries to escape the pain by learning his late wife’s talent of classical piano but to no avail Walter finds himself firing his fourth piano teacher and even more lost than he ever imagined.
A published author, Walter is forced to go to New York to a conference. He owns an apartment in the city but since his wife’s passing he has rarely returned. When he arrives he finds that a young couple has been living there for a few months. Not wanting to leave them on the street he allows Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) to stay until they can get back on their feet.
It is in Tarek’s djembe playing (a large hand drum) that Walter finally finds what he’s been looking for. Walter is a man who must come out of his shell before he explodes, and in the rhythm of this strange music he accidentally finds his therapy. Unfortunately Tarek, an illegal immigrant, is arrested by mistake and Walter must break out even further from his natural limits to find both himself and try to save his new friend’s life.
“The Visitor” is initially intriguing due to the obvious lived-in role as portrayed perfectly by Jenkins. Like McCarthy’s previous piece, the film is slow-paced yet features extraordinarily layered characters that present a high level of intelligence in screenwriting. In the first act, we are immediately drawn in and given real characters that we can really sink our teeth into. We honestly care about Walter, and want to see him in a truly happy state which is something he has obviously not realized in a long time. At times he is a very hard person to like, which is rare in terms of a character that we want to like. Jenkins earns our attention, and flourishes in the part.
McCarthy also uses natural, humanistic humor. “The Visitor” is more of a drama than the director’s first film, but the few scenes that do employ humor are effortless real and fully effectuate the story.
There are moments in this film that are unfathomably moving. One can’t help but blame Jenkins for his enlightening performance. While he’s still one of “those guys” – a character actor that the average audience seem to love but lack the ability to remember their names (other “those guys”: Steve Buscemi, James Cromwell, Chris Cooper, etc.) – Jenkins deserves not just an audience but Academy recognition. While this is most likely not realistic due to the early release date, it would be monumentally exciting if this little-known actor found himself on the red carpet in January.
Also triumphant in his performance is Haaz Sleiman as Tarek. Tarek’s passion for his art and the enthusiasm that Sleiman infuses into one smile is absolutely infectious. When Jenkins’ Walter becomes enthralled in his new life, we can’t help but fall in love as well.
However, the second act is surprisingly weaker. Tarek remains in the detention center as Walter works for his friend’s sovereignty. Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) unexpected arrives to check in on her detained son. While her character is written well, the performance of Abbass unfortunately lacks. She does not achieve levels of irritation but the actress just doesn’t seem to fit in the role.
Also, this section of “The Visitor” is terrifically different than the first part. While the first part featured a marvelous self-effacement by its director, this middle part is somewhat muddled. There are some points in which scenes seemed to be written into corners. The most troubling misstep is the lack of what one would think as key scenes. Walter often mentions both his constant practice at the drum and the fact that he is meeting with an immigration lawyer. These could have been essential scenes. Instead McCarthy attempts to develop the relationship between Mouna and Zainab. This develop isn’t necessary in the long run and the effort to accomplish profundity just doesn’t work.
Luckily, McCarthy delivers a superior third act that saves the film. The film works both as a superb character drama and as a critical portrait of American policy toward immigration. It doesn’t preach, but rather lets it audience consider and discuss their own ideals on the topic. The final scenes of the piece are spectacularly brave, and like Walter we are finally able to feel real comfort. Due to a one-of-a-kind performance from Richard Jenkins and a formidable auteur “The Visitor” achieves many levels of poignancy and a recognizable style from its hopefully soon-to-be famous director. While the film is sometimes imperfect, it features more clues of brilliance and respect that is rarely seen in modern cinema.