Anchor Bay // 2008 // 103 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 9th, 2008
Connection is everything.
"You like classical music, so you think in fours. Now you need to start thinking in threes."
Professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, Burn After Reading) is a quiet man who leads a quiet life. He teaches a class at a university in Connecticut, and has also written three books about various academic subjects. At the moment, he is working on his fourth book. Walter spends his evenings at home alone, drinking a little wine, listening to classical music, and unsuccessfully attempting to master the art of playing the piano. He would not consider himself a sad or depressed man, but he finds very little joy in life.
Walter is asked to fly to New York to give a special presentation on a paper that he has co-authored. Walter has to go to New York on a semi-regular basis, and has an apartment there that he can check into at any time. He is quite startled when he discovers that somebody else is living in his apartment. Someone apparently rented the apartment to a young couple, and didn't tell them that it belonged to Walter. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman, 24) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) are illegal immigrants trying to make a life for themselves in America. Tarek spends his nights playing drums with a jazz band, and Zainab sells handmade jewelry in a local market.
After Walter gets over the initial shock of finding these two strangers living in his apartment, he responds to the situation with a kind gesture: he invites the couple to stay with him until they find another place. The three quickly strike up a friendship, and Walter begins to feel a particularly strong bond with Tarek. He's fascinated by Tarek's drums, and hesitantly agrees to accept lessons on how to play them. It's the beginning of a new life for Walter, and perhaps the start of a beautiful friendship.
You have seen Richard Jenkins before. He's got one of those faces that you don't forget. I have been a fan of Jenkins for quite a long time, and my spirit brightens whenever I learn that he plays a role in a film I am about to watch. He has participated in a lot of good stuff (Six Feet Under, The Man Who Wasn't There, Flirting With Disaster), where he always adds something that adds greatly to that project's quality. He has also participated in some not-so-good stuff (Step Brothers, What Planet Are You From, Fun With Dick and Jane), in which he is consistently a shining light of quality amidst a sea of dreck. After a series of increasingly substantial supporting roles in recent years, Jenkins has finally been handed the lead role in The Visitor. The results confirm what most Jenkins fans have known for a long time: that Jenkins is a great actor who can carry a movie as well as almost anyone.
It's a thrill to see Jenkins handed a complex character that he has an entire film to develop. The actor usually creates a strong character portrait within just a few scenes, but given this material and time, he reaches new depths. His portrayal of Walter is one of the great performances of this year, an in-depth look at a man nervously breaking free of his academia-fueled routine. For some reason, college professors have fared quite well in the movies. Think of Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys, Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening, Anthony Hopkins in Shadowlands, Michael Caine in Educating Rita, and John Houseman in The Paper Chase. Jenkins creates a performance that stands proudly alongside all of those in terms of quality. This is a subtle, slow-burn performance that oh-so-carefully builds to its climax. There are a couple of revealing scenes near the film's conclusion that work tremendously because of all the work Jenkins puts into making us care about the character beforehand.
The surprise here is that the movie is more than a mere showcase for Jenkins' acting skills. The film is interesting in addressing a lot of material, and director Thomas McCarthy balances his many elements smoothly. In addition to offering a touching portrait of this quiet college professor's life, there's also an examination of illegal immigration that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Music is another big theme here, and plays a major role in the lives of both Walter and Tarek. Just when you think the story has taken on a pretty large load of stuff to deal with, it brings in a fourth major character about halfway through the film and brings an element of melancholic romance into the mix.
Jenkins is terrific, but his performance is not the only one worth noting here. I was quite impressed by Haaz Sleiman, a character who brings a welcome dose of warmth into the film. He is a genuinely kind person, always wanting to think the best of Walter and everyone else around him. Danai Jekesai Gurira plays a considerably more skeptical character, one who is hesitant to trust anyone initially. Both have little acting experience, and if the world is just, they'll be given more to do in the future. There's also a good performance from Hiam Abbass (Munich), a veteran who shares some rather strong scenes with Jenkins.
The Visitor also impressed me by managing to ride that elusive line between brutal honesty and warm humanity. Too many films lean towards one or the other (indie films towards the former, Hollywood flicks towards the latter), but The Visitor demonstrates that both can be achieved without any artistic compromise. I think there is a temptation to go too far in one direction for fear of diluting the intended emotional response. The Visitor is a film that obviously intends to give the viewer mixed emotions, which makes it a bit more interesting than it would be if it were merely a "discovering the joy of life" movie or a "the horrors of life" movie.
The hi-def transfer is solid and clean, with deep blacks and a pleasing color palette. The film isn't really a visual knockout in general (though the final shot is a very memorable one), but it's still nice to have the film in Blu-ray. Sound is solid, highlighted by a variety of engaging musical elements. The drumming sequences are appropriately striking, while Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's score is a less obvious than usual for the composer. The best of the supplements is a commentary with Jenkins and McCarthy, both of whom seem to care a great deal about this film. There's also a nice seven-minute featurette on the drums, an uninformative five-minute featurette on the making of the film, and a handful of deleted scenes.
Some may be a bit frustrated that the film only examines the illegal immigration from one side of the issue. The film contains two illegal immigrants who want to stay in America, and one man who wants to do everything in his power to help them stay in America. The film isn't interested in debating the complexities of the issue (and it most assuredly is a complex issue), but rather in simply examining the struggles and heartbreak that illegal immigrants face in this country. While I think the film succeeds in what it is trying to do, I can certainly understand why some might want it to do a bit more.
Richard Jenkins fans will certainly want to check out a film that gives the actor an opportunity to dig into a leading role. However, the film is strong enough that I can recommend it to all those who appreciate a gentle drama that never pushes or pulls too much. Pay this film a visit.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes