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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > The Visitor

MOVIE REVIEWS

THE VISITOR (2008)

Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Marian Seldes, Maggie Moore, Michael Cumpsty, Bill McHenry and Richard Kind.

Screenplay by Thomas McCarthy.

Directed by Thomas McCarthy.

Distributed by Overture Films.  103 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

The Visitor

Richard Jenkins is just one of those actors. You’ve been seeing him for decades. You know his face. It’s the face of an aging executive, competent-yet-bored of work, slightly dead and out of touch with his feelings and yet at the same time full of bitterness, remorse and self-loathing. You know you have seen that face acting in a ton of things. Yet, you can’t quite place which films or shows you may have seen with him – and there’s no way you are gonna come up with his actual name. 

This is not a disparaging remark, suggesting that Jenkins is somehow forgettable. In fact, he is the absolute epitome of a character actor – he disappears into his characters so completely that you do not see the actor; you see the role he is playing. 

In fact, he has been in 50 movies since his debut in Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado in 1985, He’s also been on 26 television films or programs or movies since 1974. However, he is probably best known for his mid-life breakthrough in the recurring role as the ghost of family patriarch Nate Fisher, Sr. in HBO’s popular series Six Feet Under

The Visitor is Jenkins’ graduation into the world of starring roles, and his performance is an understated marvel. He’s deserved this shot for a long time, and I’m glad to say he hits a grand slam.

Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a widowed Connecticut college professor who has completely burned out on his life. He has lost the passion for teaching. He can’t stand the publish-or-perish way of university life and has been talking hollowly about a fourth book that he is working on – and yet he never really does. He lives alone, rambling around a large suburban house with no real purpose or direction. 

Out of nostalgia, he has kept a rent-controlled apartment he used to share with his late wife in Greenwich Village, but he hasn’t been down to New York in years. He is also trying to remain connected with her by trying to learn to play the piano (she was a professional classical pianist), but he can’t seem to locate the skill or the passion for the instrument. 

The emptiness of his life comes into sharp focus when he is forced to go down to NYU to present a paper – a paper which he took co-authorship credit for but actually did not work on. He goes to stay in his old apartment and is surprised to find two people living there. 

Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) are a pair of illegal immigrants who have been scammed by someone named Ivan into believing they are subletting from a businessman who is out of the country. (It is a little unclear whether they truly thought they were legitimate lessees or knew they were essentially squatters.) He is a Syria-born jazz musician (he plays African drums) and she is a Senegalese jewelry designer. 

When they can’t find a place to go, Walter allows them to stay while they try to find a new place. Though Zainab remains distant, Tarek befriends Walter, teaching him the drums. 

Through the friendship Walter regains his sense of purpose, but when Tarek is arrested and scheduled for deportation, he realizes that the life he has taken for granted is precious for others.

The illegal immigration aspects of the film may make it slightly controversial – the film definitely does have a political agenda, but pushes it in a mostly unobtrusive way. It essentially puts a human face on an issue which has been painted in broad strokes by so many politicians and also shows the nightmare of bureaucracy gone wild. 

However, that is just a tiny aspect of the film, which is more concerned with personal spiritual redemption. 

The Visitor is the second film by writer/director Thomas McCarthy, whose 2003 film The Station Agent was a similarly beautiful, low-key character study. In fact, you can see why McCarthy would see the star potential in Jenkins, because like his star, McCarthy has long worked as a character actor, most recently being a cast member of The Wire and appearing in Baby Mama as Tina Fey’s short-lived date who runs off on her when she starts talking about having kids. Like Jenkins, you’d know his face, but not his name. However, by the evidence of The Station Agent and The Visitor, maybe he should consider a full-time residence behind the camera.

Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: May 5, 2008.

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Copyright ©2008   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: May 5, 2008.

 

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