originally published in the middlebury campus
April is lame. I’m sorry if you have some kind of attachment to April, but it sucks. The weather is always lousy. The ground is always vaguely brown and always a bit wet. The skiing is only good for the first weekend or two. Most importantly, there is never anything good in the way of movie releases. I mean, let’s just take a look at what was released this past April: Fast and Furious, Knowing, and The Haunting in Connecticut all had their illustrious debuts that month. See what I mean? April is lame. But, if you find yourself unable to go outside and have a few free minutes might I suggest checking out a wonderful film that passed a lot of people by when it was released last April (the exception to the ‘April is lame’ rule), Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor.
The Visitor is a somewhat curious movie. It tells a rather predictable and well-worn tale, a man befriends a couple whose life experiences are vastly different from his own, he learns something about the view from the other side, and fights for these friends when an obstacle arises. In the case of The Visitor, that man is Walter Vale (played with jaw-dropping subtlety by Richard Jenkins), a somewhat curmudgeonly widowed- professor at a small New England liberal arts college who returns to his apartment in New York City to find two illegal immigrants (one from Senegal and one from Syria) living there after being duped by a real estate scam. In a moment of generosity, Walter invites the couple to stay with him in the apartment. Of course they bond (over music, as it happens), and when Tarek, the Syrian (played with a vibrant energy by the heretofore unknown Haaz Sleiman), is arrested and sent to a detention center to await deportation, Walter begins his fight to help Tarek stay.
Writer-director Thomas McCarthy brings an incredibly deft touch to material that, in lesser hands, would be predictable and dull. We know what’s coming, and yet the film is still incredibly engaging. It also manages to avoid schmaltzy uplift, cultural condescension, and triteness by maintaining a steady tone of understated grace. Even when it could fall into melodramatic moralizing about the state of American immigration policy, it never does. McCarthy makes sure that the heart of his film is his characters, not some grand message. It is this dedication to the reality of his characters that sets McCarthy apart as a writer. Even though Walter begins the film as a curmudgeon, his transformation into a man who genuinely cares for the people who have entered his life never stretches credibility; this is the man Walter was before his wife died.
This isn’t to say that the film makes no false steps. The friendliness of Tarek is a bit too friendly. Walter’s decision to become the benefactor of Tarek is a bit too tidy. The relationship between Walter and Tarek’s visiting mother seems a bit false, and the ending is a little too Slumdog Millionaire (read: too uplifting for its own good).
But whatever small problems the film might have, they are more than compensated for by the tour-de-force performance of Richard Jenkins. Mr. Jenkins is a veteran character actor who steps into a leading role like he’s been top-billed for years. The nuances of his performance are astonishing. His character speaks very little, but Jenkins’ gestures, glances, looks and movements say more than a dozen monologues.
When I first saw The Visitor I was surprised at how much I liked it given that it was just as predictable as the trailer made it seem. I told people how much I liked it after Jenkins’ was awarded a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. Seeing it again this past week I was shocked at how good it was. This is a film whose greatest attribute is its subtlety, and that is praise that I find myself dolling out infuriatingly infrequently. As the end of the semester approaches distract yourself from these dreary April days and find, The Visitor. It’s a remarkable film that will make an hour and forty-four minutes of April splendid.