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.
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.
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.
pianist), but he can’t seem to locate the skill or the passion for the
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 profession
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: May 5, 2008.