Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Visitor: Most welcome

The Visitor (2008) • View trailer for The Visitor
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.22.08
Buy DVD: The Visitor • Buy Blu-Ray: The Visitor [Blu-ray]

Depression, at its most insidious, becomes a melancholy treadmill not even perceived as a problem.

We go through the motions — work, sleep, eat, keep all necessary appointments — but remain numb to life. The world ceases to be vibrant, as if all colors have drained not just from flowers and trees, but from every possession seen at the home or office.
Desperately wanting to learn more about drumming, but equally terrified of
appearing foolish — or, worse yet, being ridiculed by a young man he barely
knows — Walter (Richard Jenkins, left) slowly allows Tarek (Haaz Sleiman)
to teach him the basics of beat, and of feeling the rhythm, and (most
important) of not thinking, but simply diving into the experience.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) endures; he does not live. A college professor by profession, he mechanically teaches his sole class, having presented the same material for so many years that he could recite the course work in his sleep. He justifies this minimal schedule by insisting, to anybody who asks, that he's devoting more time to his newest book.

At best, that's wishful thinking.

He rarely engages those who approach him; his eyes barely register their presence. If a conversation continues for too long, he cuts it off.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy doesn't make many movies; his previous picture, The Station Agent, was a similar ensemble drama about lonely people trying to work through their problems. McCarthy's scripts are interesting, provocative and rich with potential; I see him becoming another John Sayles.

McCarthy also has a similarly strong casting sense. He made a star out of Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent, and now has given Jenkins — a longtime character actor with rich, expressive features — a lead role that should similarly boost his career.

Until now, Jenkins has been one of those stalwarts whose face you'll likely recognize from countless supporting roles, even if you're unlikely to remember (or even know) his name. The Visitor is his dream come true: a chance to truly demonstrate the acting chops that have waited for such an opportunity.

Walter works at a comfortable Connecticut university, but to say he "teaches" might be an overstatement; we get a sense that his students don't profit much from his class. At home, alone in a quiet house, he has gone through a series of piano teachers in an effort to learn how to play. We eventually learn that he's doing so as a means of re-connecting with his wife, a talented concert pianist whose death has led to Walter's shadowy, not-quite-existence.

We don't get specifics. Walter's wife might have died the previous week, or three years earlier. It doesn't really matter; the point is that he hasn't been able to move on.

A departmental commitment falls on his shoulders, forcing Walter to attend a conference in New York City. He goes reluctantly, deeply resenting this need to disturb his unlife. Jenkins' expression is genuinely pained as the necessity of the trip sinks in: possibly mere entropy, more likely an unconscious unwillingness to leave behind the house he once shared with his wife.

But he accepts the assignment and makes the trip, arriving late and letting himself into the pleasantly furnished New York City apartment that he apparently hasn't used for quite some time.

In a heartbeat, his life spins wholly out of control.

The apartment, spotted as long-unoccupied by some hustler, has been "rented" to a young couple — Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) — forced by circumstance to avoid any conventional means of finding a place to live. It's a toss-up as to who winds up the most frightened; for a few tense moments, we've no idea how this confrontation will play out.

But Tarek and Zainab are good, responsible people; faced with the reality of the situation — uncomfortable and embarrassed themselves — they apologize, gather their belongings and depart as quickly as possible.

Funny thing, though ... Walter doesn't exactly want them to leave.

He follows them onto the street, catches up as they've unsuccessfully tried to beg a place to sleep from a friend. Walter coaxes them back, and we see the play on emotions of Jenkins' face: such a masterful blend of concern, compassion and a nagging sense that he might be yielding to a foolish impulse.

Zainab isn't sure; Tarek, better able to read people, immediately trusts Walter. They subsequently become most unlikely housemates.

By day, Walter attends his conference. Zainab occupies a street stall, where she tries to sell her own lovely, handmade jewelry. Tarek's work takes place mostly at night, when he plays the drums as part of a jazz trio; by day, he practices or joins spontaneous drumming circles at the park.

Walter, unable to help himself, is drawn to the hypnotic beat of Tarek's drumming: not formal compositions in the classical sense with which Walter is familiar, but music nonetheless.

A miracle occurs: Walter smiles.

Even though cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg's filmstock doesn't change, we sense that more color has entered Walter's life.

The film's best scene occurs shortly thereafter, as Tarek gently pushes Walter through his first drumming lesson, accomplishing in five short minutes what all those piano teachers clearly couldn't have achieved during months of effort.

Tarek helps Walter connect with the rhythm, and therefore with his own soul; McCarthy catches this transformation with the same grace that he gives the scripted lines spoken by his actors during this scene.

Pure movie magic: We live for such transformational moments. They arrive too infrequently, in too few films.

The story then moves into a decidedly troubling direction, and Walter responds to this new crisis with genuine surprise. Again, we see it in Jenkins' face: He's astonished by the fact that he cares. But it's a fact: He has come to care for these two young people, despite — or probably because of — the yawning chasm that separates their origins, lifestyles and beliefs.

At this juncture, McCarthy's film shifts into a slightly different gear, as Walter's awakening senses play out against a story that puts a very human face on the subject of illegal immigration. McCarthy does not preach; his approach is not shrill. But it's important to recognize that Tarek and Zainab are, to a great degree, defined by their daily fear of discovery.

The script already has hinted at this subtext; Walter's presentation — indeed, the entire conference he attends — is the sort of reflexive, mostly useless attempt by members of a privileged class to play at being noble about their determination to help "emerging countries" (such a polite phrase) elsewhere in the world.

Tarek laughs — out of genuine amusement, not contempt — when he learns this much.

"That's us," he says, pointing first to himself and then to Zainab. "Syria and Senegal."

The cast — and Walter's newly developing world — expands by one, with the unexpected arrival of Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass). She shares her son's sensitivity and awareness of Walter's subtler depths; she also has her own experience with pain and loss, which allows her to recognize the symptoms in this lonely college professor.

The character dynamic expands again and Walter opens further, like a flower displaying its petals at the onset of spring. Jenkins and Abbass work well together; in some strange, unexpected and highly unlikely manner, they define and somehow complete each other.

But because this is a real-world story, we must tread carefully. Indeed, McCarthy's conclusion is likely to anger viewers with expectations defined by traditional Hollywood cotton candy.

I was reminded, as the final scene faded to black, of 1998's City of Angels, a film I actively disliked the first time I saw it, because of what felt like blatant manipulation on the writer's part. But after a second viewing, I recognized and better understood the underlying moral: What happens to Meg Ryan is of no consequence, because it's not her story. Nicolas Cage's fallen angel is the crucial character, and — whatever other tragedies have taken place along the way — the film works because, at the end, we know that he's all right.

Nothing else matters.

Similarly, The Visitor concerns a lonely man given a second chance at truly living ... and while that transformation is accompanied by a great deal of pain, that's entirely the point: There is no joy without sorrow.

And, as I've come to regard City of Angels as one of my favorite films — better appreciating its subtleties with each new viewing — I foresee the same with The Visitor. It's a quiet, thoughtful little movie with a politically charged subtext: We learn about the human condition in both an intimate and more generalized sense.

That's why movies are such a rich artform: Mindless nonsense like Speed Racer may snatch all the headlines, but richer rewards always await in heartfelt productions such as The Visitor.

Truly, something for every appetite.

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