May 6, 2008

REVIEW: The Visitor (A-)

Background: Actor Tom McCarthy's first film as a writer and director, The Station Agent, was a critical darling in 2003 and truly one of the most original American films to come along in the last 10 years. His second film, The Visitor, explores more conventional terrain albeit with mostly unfamiliar faces. You know Richard Jenkins as "that guy" from maybe 20 movies over the last two decades, and he was most recently in The Kingdom. Co-starring are Hiam Abbass (The Nativity Story, Munich) and relative newcomers Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira. A piece of trivia: McCarthy developed the theme for The Visitor when he was presenting The Station Agent on a cultural exchange program in Beirut.

Synopsis : Walter Vale (Jenkins) is a widowed economics professor at a community college in Connecticut who finds joy in little in his life besides a glass of Cabernet. Tired of his teaching duties and stuck in a creative rut, he can hardly even motivate himself to go through the motions of his job, let alone actually do any work. When he's sent to present a paper at a conference at NYU, he's given a new lease on life. Upon discovering an undocumented immigrant couple living in his vacant NYC apartment, he finds himself oddly attached to them. Tarek (Sleiman), a Syrian, plays the djembe at local jazz clubs. His Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Gurira), makes and sells jewelry at an outdoor market. Walter is sympathetic to their plight and becomes somewhat of a father figure to them over the next 10 days. He watches Tarik play the djembe with equal parts envy and childlike awe; the drumming releases some innate emotion that he can't otherwise express, and he's soon drumming with Tarik at every opportunity. You can sense the third act of the film coming, but it's not simply Tarik's mistaken arrest and detainment. His mother, Mouna (Abbass), soon arrives from Michigan, vowing to remain there until he is released, despite the fact that neither she nor Zainab can visit him due to their legal status. Walter, in the meantime, has found his life's new calling in the mission to free Tarik before he is deported. His motive to help is genuine, but it's no doubt aided by his budding romance with Mouna. There aren't a lot of places the story can go from here, so I'll stop...

I Loved:
+ The drumming. As a former percussionist myself, I couldn't help my legs from going along with it.
+ Richard Jenkins, who almost certainly has his breakthrough performance here - 30 years into his career.

I Liked:
+ Danai Jekesai Gurira, who brought the film to another level with her excellent performance as Zainab. I am going insane trying to place her from another movie, but this is her first film credit. Maybe I actually know her? She graduated from Macalester College here in St. Paul. It's really early, but if her name came up in the Oscar buzz at year's end, it wouldn't bother me.
+ The somewhat abrupt ending. Initially I was irritated, but I soon accepted the fact that sometimes life just happens that way.

I Disliked:
- Tarek. He was a likable guy, but almost too much so. I wouldn't go so far as to call it manipulative on McCarthy's part, but it's pretty easy to elicit sympathy for a character who's perfect in every imaginable way.

I Hated:
- Nothing.

Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 46/50 = 92% = A-

Last Word: With only two films to his credit as a writer/director, Tom McCarthy has demonstrated an incredible ability to put square pegs into round holes. His characters are completely mismatched, but he creates incredibly intimate connections between them. While The Visitor doesn't necessarily achieve the grand vision McCarthy may have had for it as a referendum on America's treatment of immigrants, it still works splendidly as a glimpse into one man's rediscovery of his life. Richard Jenkins delivers a painfully honest performance, and early calls for an Oscar nomination are justified. His Walter Vale carries so much emotion that a simple smile appears to unload years of grief, yet Jenkins never exaggerates (like Haaz Sleiman) or missteps, which is vital since the film almost entirely depends on him. The film lags just a bit after Tarek's detainment, but the arrival of Mouna - while not seeming entirely natural - adds a romantic, comforting aspect to what would otherwise be a really depressing story. I think I prefer the quirks and the characters of The Station Agent, but I admire Tom McCarthy's ambition with The Visitor and I'm confident in calling him, at only 39 years old, one of the most promising American filmmakers of his generation.


  1. Funny, your thoughts on Gurira and Sleiman are pretty much the inverse of mine. Not that I thought she was bad by any means, but wasn't around enough to make any kind of impact. Meanwhile, near-perfect as he may be portrayed, Tarek certainly showed a range of emotions (from their first encounter to the last time we see him), and I couldn't help but like him immensely. It's a valid point on the sympathy, but I'm more than willing to overlook it.

  2. Ha, I love it, Fletch. We've managed to pull that off more than once.

    I think my issue was more with the character of Tarek than with the actor (though I guess I mentioned Sleiman as well). The character certainly expanded after his detention, but he was just a touch - really, just the slightest amount - too...happy for me. Maybe I thought he was even naive? Mmm...that's unfair, and it makes me sound like a jerk.

    Gurira didn't have a huge range (sullen or scared seem to cover it), but I thought she was perfect for what the part called for, even if it was the fourth most present character.

    In any case, our differences on these don't matter too much since this is Jenkins' torch to carry from start to finish.

  3. Daniel, I think I liked the character of Tarek more than you, but the movie a teeny bit less.

    It felt at times like the filmmaker wasn't willing to trust his audience enough to allow his message to be more subtle.

    It's probably a small quibble when ulitmately I liked a lot of the film, particularly the chemistry between Jenkins and Tarek.

    Flawed or not, definitely one of the better movies of the year so far.

  4. Well you know my expectations for this were pretty high, Craig. While I wasn't blown away by it, my math ended up showing that it actually is a good movie.

    Your point is definitely valid - there's not a lot to misunderstand here. McCarthy may have gotten in over his head trying to get at both immigration and an unlikely friendship, but overall I think the final product is better than we could expect from a lot of other directors.

  5. Very nice, Danny.

    As I mentioned over at my blog, we are pretty much on the same page here. If I had to give out letter grades (but I use stars so I have a different system), I'd give it an A rather than an A-. So it's almost exactly the same reaction.

    I did like the character of Tarek more than you. I think he was written as a happy go lucky, optimistic type. Kind of carefree and slightly irresponsible, despite his very good heart. Remmber how Zainab was always reminding him to pick up stuff, be on time, get somewhere when he was supposed to - and he never actually seemed to?

    She said he was always "on Arab time". Zainab was DEFINITELY the adult in that relationship.

    I thought it was an absolutely lovely film and I'm SOLIDLY behind Mr. Jenkins for Best Actor. If he misses out, there will be blood. And, if you know ANYTHING, you don't want to get an Irish blonde going. In a bad way, I mean.

    I had to laugh when I read this: "What I hated: Nothing".

    Glad you loved it, Danny. I did too. SO MUCH. I have many repeat viewings ahead of me. It'll make my summer.

  6. Hmm, Tarek seems to have charmed the pants off of everyone but me. My position that he was too perfect is basically nullified by your simple observation, Miranda - thanks. Yes, I remember that he was irresponsible with his timing, and it would be fair to assume that he was aloof in other aspects of his life and their relationship as well. It just wasn't obvious.

    I'd like to see what you get from of a second viewing of it. Jenkins was pretty incredible - no doubt he should be in the Oscar conversation, even if it's early. I don't yet know what's to come, but he might facing some established star power with Pitt in Benjamin Button, just for one example. He might even be up against his own co-stars in Burn After Reading - Pitt, Clooney, Malkovich.

    If I were an awards prognosticator, I would say he's in for a career achievement nod, but unlikely to actually win. We shall see.

    Wow, have I just realized that I'm already getting excited for the Oscars? Umm...yeah.

  7. Your Oscar geekdom notwithstanding (hehe), I don't think Jenkins has a chance. Don't forget - quiet performances rarely get nominated, much less win anything. Though he should be a lock for an Independent Spirit award nom.

  8. You're right that it definitely doesn't scream Oscar, Fletch, but based on the recent years where indies are filtering into the Oscar pool, I could still see a nomination happening since Jenkins seems to be pretty well loved by everyone he's worked with in the last 20 years, including a lot of Academy members.

    But maybe not. He's not strung out, he doesn't gain/lose 50 lbs, and there's not an obvious scene you can point to and say, "Oscar!" Is there? If nothing else, maybe he'll have some more leading roles in the future.

  9. As for the "Oscar scene," judging by the criteria we've set forth, wouldn't it have to be his last trip to the detention center?

    "Sir, please step away from the glass."

  10. Yeah, that's the typical Oscar outburst alright, but I don't think he's guilty of pandering for an award. Great scene.

    It would be nice if the Academy paid more attention to the more subdued moments, where he's talking with Mouna or chatting with the dog guy in the hallway, or even when he's just playing the drum alone in his home. To take nothing away from DDL, it's a lot easier to attract attention screaming,"I'VE ABANDONED MY CHILD!"

  11. As usual, and I am sorry about this, "I really want to see this" is all I can say.

    I can add that I think your broad scope of films, and the sheer number you review, is really impressive. In my opinion, and I am sure in many other's, your blog is quite the must-read.

    In addition, I have decided that, for the most part, I do not care about reading reviews before I see a film - and your review here is great - because my own convictions are too strong to be swayed by other people's opinions and preconceived notions I may have. So from now on, unless it is a film on my personal "must-see" list or something, I will be reading ever since word you write.

    *I do not mean to sound like a stalker*

  12. "*I do not mean to sound like a stalker*"

    If I could be so lucky, Nick. Ha! Seriously, though, thanks a lot. You don't really know it yet but you're basically my meal ticket 10 years from now. Not that I would ever consider "using" you or anything, but that I'm able to claim any connection with someone who's internationally known as the best the movie blogger of the next generation is my pleasure.

    I'm in the minority regarding the avoidance of reviews prior to viewing a movie, but as you perfectly say, my convictions also "are too strong to be swayed by other people's opinions and preconceived notions I may have." My reason is primarily to avoid spoilers, but that's a personal preference as well.

  13. Saw this today (at Block E ? huh ?) and liked it a lot, but I don't think Jenkins has any chance at an Oscar nom. I thought he was good, but it's such an understated role that it's just not going to happen. I agree with your opinions on Gurira and Sleiman. I'll throw in my opinion that I thought Abbass (obviously had to look it up) stole the show from all three of those previously mentioned.

    By the way, two of the groups of people behind me got in a mini-fight about talking during the movie, which I thought you'd enjoy. When you're at a 2:00 matinee showing of the friggin Visitor in the middle of Downtown Minneapolis two months after it comes out, what hope is there for any movie that people are actually making it a point to see.

  14. I didn't know you hadn't seen this yet.

    Well the early Oscar buzz has definitely faded on this one, and I don't expect it to elbow its way back into the conversation at the end of the year. Incidentally, I think my impression of this has faded bit over that time as well. I've just found the story didn't ring as true for me as I originally thought it did. I stand by my grade but I'm wondering where I'll place this at the end of the year.

    Way to buffer my anxiety about a respectable midnight crowd for Batman at Block E...


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