Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Visitor (2008)

* * * *

The Visitor is proof that not every movie requires an attractive, A-list leading man or woman to carry the film, and that a career-defining role can come at any age. Richard Jenkins is sixty years old, and although some may recognize him from HBO's Six Feet Under, he has been a character actor playing mostly small roles for over thirty years. In the Visitor he stars as Professor Walter Vale, a quiet widower sent from his teaching-post in Connecticut to a global economics conference in New York City against his will. When he gets to an apartment he has owned but not visited for years he finds two unexpected visitors. Jenkins performance as Vale is so subtle and nuanced that it barely seems like a performance, more like a high school or college teacher most of us have known in the past. At times short tempered, Vale almost only speaks when spoken to and even then responds with only what must be said. The brief introduction to Vale would lead one to believe he would be upset and deeply bothered by the intruders living in the apartment he owns, however, he chooses to let them stay, and the relationship he develops with them reveals who he really is. The visiting couple is played by Haaz Sleiman (Tarek) and Danai Jekesai Gurira (Zainab), both of whom were well casted and are strikingly younger and more vibrant than Jenkins, creating both tension and surprise. Jenkins is in the early running for performance of the year, and Hiam Abbass, as Tarek's mother, is a strangely well-fitting complement to Jenkins in a supporting role. The drama that ensues explores how we approach someone different, dealing with loss and growing old, and the complexity of immigration in post 9/11 America. The script written by Thomas McCarthy is sharp and his direction is to the point for the most part. At times the Visitor becomes a bit too sentimental and predictable, but although you may see what is coming, the deeply human performances illuminate the issues of diversity in American life. Every scene is tightly edited, New York City is captured for its spirit and its gloom, and the film's climax will tug at your heart strings while leaving a sense of hope and life. In under two hours the Visitor packs an emotional punch with a few jabs of humor, all while raising important questions about the state of American politics and culture, a facet of film too often ignored in this year's releases.

Good for: independent film fans, the politically and socially aware

Bad for: fans of box-office blockbusters, intolerant people

The Gallery
The Film Maker: * * * *