It seems remarkable that Thomas McCarthy, the writer/director responsible for both The Station Agent and now The Visitor, should have limited his output to only these two films behind the camera. The Station Agent was highly regarded by ciritics in 2003 (achieving a score of 81/100 or “Universal acclaim” on metacritic) and now The Visitor may well be one of my top films of 2008.
Much of its success lies firmly on the shoulders of its star Richard Jenkins, who is able to generate emotion with the most subtle of looks. He is perfect as Walter Vale, a bored economics Professor, widowed by his famous wife whose success as a pianist clashes against his difficulty in learning the same instrument. He is alone in the world and likes it that way. Forced to attend a conference in New York City and present a paper he ‘co-authored’ (but actually had little to do with), he enters the empty apartment he keeps there only to find two people in residence. After throwing them out and then having a change of heart, he quickly becomes friends with Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), discovering a new side of himself in the process.
Jenkins demonstrates such ease in his character that it is hard to remember he is a prolific performer with supporting appearances in many, many films. Perhaps it is his ‘everyman’ quality that allows him to excel in the shadow of others, but he makes it clear in The Visitor that he is more than capable of carrying a film on his own. There are no histrionics about him, with Vale allowed only to be quiet and measured, but in spite of this Jenkins captures the attention of his audience and keeps it. To see him bringing to life the ‘opening up’ of Walter is something special.
Sleiman and Gurira are both strong in important supporting roles, although Sleiman is given a far easier task with the character of Tarek, a charming and exuberant fellow with a wide smile and easy laugh. Later in the film it is Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother Mouna who spends most time opposite Walter, and she shares some of the same acting qualities – like Jenkins there are no theatrics in her performance, with measured and subtle again better adjectives.
McCarthy does a wonderful job of bringing his story to life, with his characters fully fleshed out against the backdrop of their experiences, and his unassuming political messages firmly but politely stated. That The Visitor carries a subplot about life in America for immigrants post-9/11 is almost a side-note to the unveiling of the new Walter Vale, and yet this story imbues Walter’s with much of its emotional core. It is hard to remain unmoved by the experiences of these four people, which range from life-affirming to life-changing. McCarthy moves his film along at pace, with its 108 minutes running time feeling like far less, and every sequence within the films seems carefully chosen for its ability to illustrate further McCarthy’s theses.
It isn’t that often that quiet, subtle and yet profound films gain a major commercial release against the more bombastic – the release of The Visitor is the same day as Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Taken and The Strangers, and it is almost certain to live out its run in arthouse cinemas. Occasionally, however, those films achieve a word-of-mouth success on their strengths alone and one hopes this is the case with the excellent The Visitor.Rating: