Tuesday, April 30, 2013

CANON OF FILM: "THE VISITOR"

THE VISITOR (2008)

Director/Screenplay: Thomas McCarthy



"The Visitor", I realize now, is one of the most absorbing films made in the last decade. It's both sad, yet beautiful, one of those rare films that you can get swept up in every time it's on. The story is so odd and the cast of characters so widespread and international, that it's one of those stories that can only take place in New York City. That's part of it's appeal, that even though we may sense or even know what's coming, it takes such a strange path to get there, that you keep watching, and wonder such things as, "How did they even think of this idea, and these characters, and who'd bring them together like this?"

Walter (Oscar-nominee Richard Jenkins) plays a Connecticut professor, who's wife, a former classical pianist, has recently passed. He's tried in vain to learn the piano, but even his teacher tells him that it's not worth pursuing. He's tired of being a professor, and spends his days, supposedly writing some book, and uses it as an excuse to get out of everything, and retain his privacy. One time, he can't get out of presenting a paper that he co-wrote in New York City. He's kept a never-used apartment in Manhattan, but when he arrives, there's people living there. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is a Syrian, who's lived in the country for a few years, and his wife, Zainab (Dania Guirab) is a Senagalese woman. They realize that somebody must've taken advantage of them, and begin to leave, but Walter, allows them to stay. He hasn't been to the apartment in 25 years either, and after he presents his paper, he won't remain there he figures. Then, he gets interested in the African drum, which Tarek plays. The straight tagline, of old college professor finds new life playing the African drum, alone, would make a very interesting film yet, "The Visitor", refuses to be that simplistic. It refuses to give us characters that simplistic. On the way back from a gig in the park, Tarek is taken by authorities at the subway, they're claiming that he's an illegal alien, and that he didn't renew his visa, and he's being detained, in this post 9/11 New York. Walter visits him, and gets him a lawyer to look in on the case. Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass) soon arrives, and begins staying at the apartment as well, as Walter begins a laborious back-and-forth from Connecticut, where he continues to try to learn the drum and rhythm of the African music from CDs,  as he sleepwalks through classes, before finally taking a leave of absence. There's a tender scene between Zainab and Mouna, after Walter introduces the two, and in that moment, we get two people who care deeply about the same person, frightened, worried, grief-stricken, as they both discover this other part of Tarek's life together. Walter and Mouna, don't begin a sexual relationship, per se, but an adult relationship, that's filled with dinners, Broadway shows and drinks, and both of them, coming to epiphanies about their lives.

Mouna: What are you going to do now?

Walter: I don't know.

Mouna: Feel good not knowing, doesn't it?

It's these quiet exchanges, and this quiet performance by Jenkins. Before this film, he was a go-to character actor, probably best known for playing the dead father on "Six Feet Under" occasionally. He can be an overly outgoing, rambunctious and exhuberant actor but here, there's not a single showy scene in Jenkins work, and the littlest movements reveal tons of emotions, and when he finally does implode, you can tell that he hasn't felt anything this emotional in years. All the actors actually are good in the film however. there's no showy performance. There's nothing bad in this film. The lighting is beautiful, as I realize on multiple viewings. It may be a paceful film, but the editing is damn near perfect. Every single scene and plot development in "The Visitor" is absolutely essential to the film working. It takes it's time, to tell it's story, but if you took one part out, or throw one extra thing in, the whole film wouldn't work. In a way, this is one of those miracle films, where everything had to go perfect, and did. The script is great, but it needs the right actors, the actors are great, but it needs the right setting, the right look, the right feel, at it's core, "The Visitor" is a tonal piece, musically and emotionally.

The film was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who's himself an intriguing character. He's a character actor in roles so small and so innocuous, you could've seen everything he's ever been in, and still not be able to pick him out of a lineup of one. Insiders know that he's one of the best writer/directors in independent film today, and recently he got an Oscar nomination as a co-writer on Disney/Pixar's film, "Up". His first directorial feature was the wonderful "The Station Agent" with Peter Dinklage as a loner train enthusiast, who reluctantly befriends an eccentric food server, in Bobby Cannavale, and a suicidal painter in Patricia Clarkson, after he moves into an abandoned New Jersey train depot. His latest film was "Win-Win" with Paul Giamatti as an attorney an occasional wrestling coach, becomes a legal guardian of an Alzheimer's patient to collect the money, only to have the patient's runaway grandson look for him, who happens to be a skilled amateur wrestler. All three films, in a way, are comedies, but comedies of human behavior, but they all also have the plot, where characters from different life experiences, places and backgrounds, suddenly through unintended or unusual circumstances, end up together. This is probably why he doesn't choose the most well-known of movie stars for his movies, they wouldn't seem believable, and besides that, his characters are real characters, not some random, paint-by-numbers parts that Hollywood writes for actors. He gets the best actors, and gives them the parts of their lifetime. Watching "The Visitor" again recently for the sixth or seventh time, I realize how much we care about these characters, and strangely, how timely it is now. What happens to Tarek and Mouna, not just, whether they find each other back in Syria, but what's happening to them now, that there's a Civil War there? It's sad knowing that Tarek, now of all times, couldn't be allowed back into America. But I also feel happy, knowing that Walter, is probably still in that Subway stop, playing the African drum, not for money, but because that's who he is now. Maybe I'm jumping the gun a bit, adding this film to my Canon, but how many movies can you think of, that give us so many different emotional responses when we think about them?
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