The name Richard Jenkins will probably register with fans of the TV series Six Feet Under (2001-2005). Movie fans may not know the name, but the face is instantly recognizable from titles like I Heart Huckabees (2004), Shall We Dance (2004), Fun with Dick and Jane (2005), The Kingdom (2007) etc. After seeing him in Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor, the face and the name should both be easily remembered. At the age of 60, Jenkins moves from reliable character actor into the realm of star—and if there’s any justice (and enough leading roles for men his age), he will stay there. Not to downplay the other performers or McCarthy’s accomplishment as both writer and director, but Jenkins’ performance is the centerpiece of the film.
The Visitor is McCarthy’s long-anticipated follow-up to his debut feature The Station Agent (2003), and while The Visitor may lack some of the earlier film’s quirkier charms (stories about a dwarf inheriting a train station don’t come along every day), it’s both a worthy successor and a work clearly cut from the same cloth. Both films are about the same basic topic: unlikely people connecting with unlikely people and growing from the experience.
This time, the story involves Walter Vale (Jenkins), a withdrawn college professor, going through the motions of teaching and living for reasons he can no longer define. When he’s forced into presenting a paper (that he ostensibly co-authored, but didn’t) at a conference in New York City, he’s pushed slightly back into the real world. When he finds that his NY apartment has been “rented” through a real estate scam to a young illegal-alien couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), things really start to change.
Realizing the pair have nowhere to go, Walter lets them stay with him, whereupon an unlikely friendship evolves—one that serves to bring Walter back to conscious life. In itself, that would be pretty clichéd and obvious, but McCarthy is savvy enough to know that, so he also deals with the changes that the relationship causes in Tarek and Zainab, who aren’t used to this kind of generosity. The plot is driven by the fact that Tarek gets arrested (for no very good reason except that he looks Middle Eastern) and his illegal-alien status results in him being “detained” while his case is supposedly examined. This also expands the situation by introducing Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass, Paradise Now), into the proceedings, who becomes an unlikely romantic interest for Walter.
That’s the crux of the story. The charms and wonders of the film lie in the performances of the leads, all of whom are better than perfect—they feel real. There’s no sense of acting here, merely a sense of being. The emotionalism creeps up on you. For me at least, it comes into sharp focus when Mouna meets Zainab (“She’s very black,” Mouna cautiously observes of the Senegal refugee from a distance). The playing and body language of the two women at this moment is astonishing.
Yes, the story is clearly political in that it addresses the issue of illegal immigration. That it does this in human terms perhaps makes it even more so. But it’s rarely preachy and it never descends to the level of superficial schmaltz that creeps into the similarly themed Under the Same Moon that played here recently. It also eschews the easy answers and the feel-good ending, leaving much unresolved, along with a sense of not-so-quiet protest for its last word. Yes, it’s a fairly predictable ending—and a very movie one—but it works. Amidst a sea of big-budget summer releases, The Visitor is something of an oasis of humanity. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.