Thursday, May 8, 2008
Thomas McCarthy has made two films that stand out not just for their sharp, emotional observations, but also because of the lead actors. Instead of focusing on the traditional movie star, McCarthy, who got his training as an actor and who earns most of his paychecks on screen instead of behind the camera, writes for thespians he admires who aren’t the traditional leads, and then lets them flex their acting muscles. In The Station Agent, he turned Peter Dinklage into a star. Now, in his sophomore feature, The Visitor, McCarthy does the same for Richard Jenkins, the longtime character whose face is immediately familiar if not easily placed (he’s probably best known as the dead father on Six Feet Under).
Jenkins is Walter Vale, a professor who teaches economics at a Connecticut school who has found himself adrift following the death of his wife. He isn’t particularly interested in his work, and aspires to play the piano, his wife’s instrument, but isn’t particularly good at it. Walter is searching for some sort of inspiration, but he is a sad, sad man.
Sent to New York to deliver a paper at an economics conference, Walter discovers a young Muslim couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), living in the apartment he has kept for better than two decades. It is all a genuine misunderstanding – the apartment has been illegally rented to them, and after an initial confrontation, the two pack their things and move to the sidewalk across the street, where Tarek pulls out his phone and desperately tries to find them a place to sleep that night. Even though Walter may be unhappy, he isn’t unkind. So you aren’t completely surprised when he lets them back into the apartment, at least for the night.
Tarek is an infectiously pleasant young man, making his living drumming in combos throughout the city. And after a couple of days, he shows the reluctant Walter how to play. And it’s soon clear that Walter has found his inspiration. It’s all he can do to leave the conference fast enough to get home and start playing, and eventually to follow Tarek to a jam session in Central Park. This is truly the happiest Walter has been in years, so it’s a shame that on the way home, a mix-up about subway fares gets Tarek arrested. A huge shame, in fact, because he’s here illegally, and it doesn’t take long before this young Arab man is in a detention center under threat of deportation.
What McCarthy has done is to put a very personal face to immigration, especially once Mouna (Hiam Abbass) arrives in New York, seeking word of her son. No matter your politics, it’s hard to feel that deporting Tarek is the right answer, but it’s difficult to see how else it can play out. It’s all anchored by Jenkins, who is unlikely to ever get another part this good, this sad and subtle and inspiring, because parts like this don’t come along very often. But it’s to McCarthy’s credit that he gets this opportunity, because the director wisely casts the spotlight of this very post-9/11 movie on people, rather than politics.
THE VISITOR (3 ½ ) Directed by Thomas McCarthy • Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira and Hiam Abbass • PG-13, 108 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.