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The Visitor

Posted by martinteller on February 2, 2014

Walter (Richard Jenkins) is going through the motions.  With his wife dead and his son living overseas, he puts in the minimum amount of effort in his job as a college professor in Connecticut, while claiming to be working on a book.  He reluctantly agrees to present a paper — that he didn’t actually write — at a conference in New York.  When he arrives at his apartment in the city, however, he finds it occupied.  Two illegal immigrants have been hoodwinked into paying rent for an apartment they were told was vacant.  They are Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian with a passion for drumming, and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), a homemade jewelry peddler from Senegal.  Walter agrees to let them stay until they can find their own place, and he becomes attached to them.  Unfortunately, Tarek gets arrested and now faces deportation.

There were many ways this movie could have gone wrong.  It just barely dances on the edge of being too sappy, but Tom McCarthy (in the follow-up to his acclaimed debut, The Station Agent) manages to hold back at the right moments.  While the drama is fairly predictable, it is nonetheless engaging because the viewer is invested in these characters.  The four leads (including Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother) are all quite excellent, very endearing without feeling like we’re being manipulated into caring about them.  The score by Jan Kaczmarek is also just a hair shy of being too schmaltzy, but somehow the tinkly tones have enough subtle melancholy behind them not to feel like tugs on the heartstrings.  And the film’s attention to multiculturalism could have been a disaster of heavy-handedness — I’m thinking here of Rachel Getting Married — but once more, there’s enough restraint that it doesn’t feel forced.  The movie’s approach to the problems facing illegal immigrants doesn’t come off too preachy… the one speech in the film is quite natural.

The one thing that nagged at me was that Walter’s transformation is too quick and easy.  He becomes a less interesting character when there isn’t this antisocial, darker streak to him.  It’s like the minute he finds a purpose in life, he’s a brand new man, and the troubled persona we see at the beginning of the film vanishes.  In the early minutes, I was getting a strong Kieslowski vibe, and thought that Walter might be as complex a figure as Jean-Louis Trintignant in Three Colors: Red.  So the relative lack of complexity as the movie develops became a bit of disappointment.  I wanted a better feel for the implications of what this meant for Walter.

But I still really liked this film, its marvelous cast, its warm humanist outlook, and its nicely underplayed hint of anger at the end.  Besides Kieslowski, at times I was reminded of Ramin Bahrani and the Dardennes.  This was a recommendation from my girlfriend, and as she done several times before (Return to Me, Philadelphia, Peggy Sue Got Married, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) she really nailed it.  I wouldn’t have even known about this sensitive, unassuming film if she hadn’t pointed me towards it.  Rating: Very Good (86)


2 Responses to “The Visitor”

  1. Dan Heaton said

    i remember seeing trailers for The Visitor and thinking it looked like a painful mess of tired cliches. I’d seen The Station Agent and should have known better. I was surprised by how well it works for the most part, and Jenkins is a main factor. I agree that it walks that line between getting too obvious and sappy, and there are a few moments that aren’t as strong. Even so, it was much better than I expected.

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