Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Visitor - Dir. Thomas McCarthy

The Visitor opened about a year ago, at a time when few "awards-minded" films are released. It was one of the first movies to open in 2008 with an Oscar buzz attached to it, for lead actor Richard Jenkins. Jenkins was nominated, and a few weeks ago he lost out to Sean Penn. I could have tried to rent Milk last night but I was just assuming it would be not be available. I watched The Visitor on Starz On-Demand last night, very tired due to a reckless Friday night which involved 3 hours of sleep, at best, thinking, "Well, I'll probably fall asleep but it's supposed to be good, so I should at least try...."

I'm very glad I decided to do that, and I did not fall asleep. I am writing about it on Flying Houses because this is the kind of movie that gets forgotten about by the public at large and flits around on cable for months or years--perhaps like The Station Agent, McCarthy's only other film which he wrote and directed, which is supposed to be quite good, and which I've never really tried to see. The Visitor is a very good film--the only criticism I can make is that it tends to view the world through rose-colored glasses too much. Not in its conclusion, or portrayal of law enforcement procedure--but in its total disregard to issues of cost of living.

Richard Jenkins plays Walter, an economics professor at Connecticut College, who is summoned to New York to present a paper at NYU which he co-authored, though he really just read it and attached his name to it. The woman more responsible for it is in the throws of late-stage pregnancy, and so he agrees to go to New York, where it is casually revealed that he keeps an apartment--for the last 25 years. I understand that tenured professors make pretty good money, but still, a home in Connecticut, and an apartment in New York that he almost never goes to--that's the first offense. He finds two people living in his apartment, Syrian musician Tarek, and Senegalese jewelry-maker Zainab. At first they flip out because they think it's their place--they've been rented it by a man named Ivan, who is only mentioned by name and never explained, offense #2. Walter feels bad for them after they leave, because they've been polite and understanding, and tells them they can move back in and stay for a few days.

He goes to the conference at NYU, which are certainly some of the best scenes in the film. The Kimmel Student Center is used to excellent effect in the film. He goes to Washington Square Park and starts to listen to the drummers playing the bongo on the bottoms of buckets. He later finds that Tarek plays the bongos, and after being taught a few lessons, realizes that the drums are one of his great undiscovered loves. These are some of the other best scenes--for about twenty minutes--perhaps minutes 20 through 40 of the film--it can seemingly do no wrong. Never mind that Tarek and Zainab are supposedly looking for an apartment--who knows how they'd be able to afford it--but because it doesn't come to fruition it is not enough to call if offense #3. You can't help but be happy for Walter, who is such a cut-and-dry figure at the beginning, and who develops this very real, dare-I-say heartwarming friendship with Tarek and his girlfriend, who is oddly standoffish at points.

The turning point of the film occurs after the drum circle performance at Central Park, another one of the best scenes. In the rush to get through the subway turnstile, Tarek gets his giant drum bag stuck at an interval after it has locked, and he casually steps over it. A note on turnstile hopping: I do not know if I have done it in New York, but I definitely did it in Paris a few times, where it is commonplace enough that I saw a few other people do it, generally at night. I might have done it once in New York, but the manner in which Tarek is stopped is something very real and frightening and you really just want to curse the hell out of the subway police. Definitely one of the most emotional parts of the movie, and Jenkins plays the part of powerless advocate at just the right tone. Later Tarek is brought to a correctional facility in Queens, and then for the final arc of the film, his mother arrives from Michigan because she believes that her presence alone in the city will help get him out.

Another great scene is when Tarek's mother, Mouna, meets Zainab and asks, "Show me what you liked to do in the city with him." And they ride the Staten Island Ferry, because it's a free boat ride, and because you can point out where the WTC used to stand, even if you didn't get to see it in person, and because you go right by the Statue of Liberty, which is certainly a major symbol in the film. Later there seems to be a relationship blossoming between Walter, a widower, and Mouna, a widow, but the film never veers into sacharrine unrealistic notions of romance, and is all the more powerful for it.

While the set-up may be a bit unrealistic for monetary reasons, and while the issue of illegal aliens in the U.S. is given a rather elementary surface examination, The Visitor is still a film that everyone should see. It will make you happy in ways you didn't expect, and it will make you really start to care about the characters, whether you recognize the manipulative quality or not. That extra 20% in income taxes that Tarek and Zainab avoid having to pay is maybe just what they need to make living in NYC work out alright. I think the film could have presented the other side of the issue, at least slightly, just to give a voice to the other side, but it is still an important film politically, because it calls for revision of U.S. immigration policy, which has only become more strict and harsh since 9/11. What happens to Tarek is upsetting, and while he may not technically be allowed to stay in the country, there still should be some way to allow him to become a naturalized citizen before such life-shattering actions are taken. Jenkins voices these emotions in such a way that you don't disagree with him, and while it is up for debate whether he deserved the Oscar, he clearly deserved the nomination. While this is definitely a "message film," it's not a boring or inappropriate one, and the last shot of film is memorably great. It may not seem like the most exciting movie from a synopsis standpoint, but it deserves to be given a chance by everybody.

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