The Visitor (2008)

The Visitor (2008…)

Film review by: Witney Seibold




            You know Richard Jenkins, you just don’t know that you know him. He has had a supporting role in every fifth film you’ve seen over the last 15 years or so. “The Visitor” is his first leading role, and he’s been nominated for an Academy Award. You see? All those ubiquitous bit players you’ve seen over the years (a.k.a. “Hey! It’s that guy!”); men like Stephen Tobolowsy, David Paymer, Bob Gunton, and Robert Davi, are actually all incredibly talented character actors. I beseech you, and I assign the task to you: learn these performers’ names.


            In Thomas McCarthy’s “The Visitor,” Jenkins plays a college professor named Walter Vale who has been working on his book for longer than is reasonable. His wife died many years ago, and he has reached an emotional point where his mourning has become a stale, pneumatic exercise, more akin to vague self-pity. He does little actual work, mostly just reading the papers he barely co-authored at boring symposia. His sad, blank expression tells us volumes.


            He dreams of leaving things behind at his stuff Connecticut university, but does not long for it. On a whim, he goes to his second apartment out-of-state in New York. He discovers, to his surprise, that a pair of squatters has been living there in his absence. The squatters are a handsome young Syrian named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). They have been victims of a real estate scam, and are in the U.S. illegally. They are polite and apologetic about being scammed, and Walter, not really passionate enough to be angry or incensed about any of this (he’s, more than anything, just cold), offers that they may continue to stay there. In exchange, Tarek offers to give him lessons on the drums.


            Worry not. This film is not one of those films in which a white man finds his purpose and redemption in the occupations and philosophies of the non-whites around him. I’m tired of that story too.


            For you see, while Walter does begin to find a bit of passion and freedom in the drumming, the story abruptly (and thankfully) takes a left turn when Tarek is arrested for jumping a subway turnstile. He is swiftly spirited off into the beaurocratic maze of post-9/11 immigration policies. He is Syrian, you see, and therefore suspected of being suspicious. Walter then begins to fight for something he finally, finally has some feeling about. He even gets Tarek’s poor mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) involved. Soon, it’s all Walter can do to keep Tarek hopeful, his mother sheltered.




            But more than just a frustrating tale of cutting through endless red tape, “The Visitor” is about Walter slowly finding something he can work for. He admits to Mouna at one point that he has not done any real work for 20 years, and has no idea what to do with his time. Fighting for Tarek, a person he has come to care about, is not just an act of philanthropy, but an bold act of liberation, and a breakaway from stagnation.


            “The Visitor” can be accused of being manipulative with its story (you kind of have to go with it for the first half), but I will not be one of the critics to make that accusation. I feel it is a good film to feature a great performance from an underrated actor. Perhaps now Jenkins will receive more well-deserved leading roles.

Published in: on February 13, 2009 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

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