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Friday, June 26, 2009
Actor comes into his own
By KAORI SHOJI
Maybe it's just me, but "The Visitor" recalls the slight fear mixed with slight resentment, that tends to assail non-American citizens going through U.S. immigration. It seems the quickest and most hassle-free way out of the booth and through the exit, is to stress that you're only visiting — and will be out of the country real soon, emphasis on the soon. "The Visitor" brings back that experience — magnified by about 3,000 times. In one scene, an immigration lawyer dispenses a dose of the bitter truth: "I have an uncle who lived here and raised a family for 23 years and then he was deported."
A story about belonging in American society, only to discover later that one was "um, just visiting" as one of the characters says, "The Visitor" relies, not on self-righteous anger, but a gentle cynicism that pulses through the story like the beat of a distant drum. Written and directed by actor/filmmaker Tom McCarthy (whose last stint behind the camera was the quietly acclaimed "Station Agent" in 2003), it explores a gut-wrenching tragedy, and still remains hopeful in a low-key, crooked-smile kind of way. That odd equilibrium rests on the performance of 62-year-old Richard Jenkins (rightfully nominated for an Academy Award), who played the leading role for the first time in the 40-odd years of his acting career. Jenkins has played grave professionals, straight-laced sherrifs, sincere, worried dads; his is the face that a viewer immediately trusts and then forgets. But in "The Visitor" you see him carve out the figure of his character with a determined meticulousness and artisanal sensitivity — the work of a true craftsman emerges before your eyes.
At the beginning of the story Jenkins' face is closed and repressed. He plays Connecticut college professor Walter Vale, widowed and living alone in a house that's too spacious, too quiet and full of unused furniture. Walter's professional life brings no joy either — he's been teaching the same old global economics course for years without bothering to change the syllabus. But somewhere in his past life, Walter had been fun, sociable, generous, and it shows when he goes to New York to attend a conference, walks into his West Village apartment that he uses only occasionally, and discovers a young couple living there. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) had been conned into thinking the place was for rent and had set up a home. But they immediately offer to leave, begging Walter not to call the police — they're illegal immigrants and have no place to go. So Walter invites them to stay until they can relocate.
Tarek warms to the older man, especially when Walter expresses an interest in his djembe — the west African hand drum. In one of the film's best moments, Tarek takes Walter to the African percussionist's circle in Washington Square Park — no one so much as raises an eyebrow when a bald white guy with glasses sits down at the far end and starts beating, oblivious to everything but the music. But on the same day, Tarek is arrested in the subway for no apparent reason and shuffled off to a detention center in Queens. Walter drops everything to try and help — getting an immigration lawyer, delivering letters from Zainab (who can't visit herself for risk of deportation), taking care of Tarek's mother, Mouna (the splendid Hiam Abbass), who has come out from Detroit to see if she can help her son.
Ultimately, "The Visitor" stops being a story about a sociopolitical dilemma and focuses solely on Walter. Tarek and Mouna may have been visitors in the U.S. but then Walter too, had his own journey, his own sense of arriving — and having to leave. Intelligent and restrained until the very last frame, "The Visitor" hides an elegant eloquence — like Zainab's love notes to Tarek, from which both the camera and Walter discreetly avert their gaze.