Judge Joel Pearce prefers to play the bassoon.
Connection is everything.
As film buffs and critics, we often use terms like "crowd pleaser" and "heartwarming" in a secretly derogatory way. They are used to describe films that aim for the lowest common denominator in a clever way, slicing through the intellect and aiming straight for the gut in an attempt to make as much money as possible through housewife word of mouth. On occasion, though, a film comes along that is heartwarming, pleases the crowds, and also stands apart as a truly wonderful film. The Visitor is one of these: a film as delightful as Tom McCarthy's own The Station Agent, but also toughly political as An Inconvenient Truth.
Facts of the Case
Walter (Richard Jenkins, The Kingdom) is a professor of third world economics who has long since lost any passion for his career. He is shaken out of his complacency when he is forced to return to New York to give a paper that he co-authored, only to discover that his apartment there has been rented out to a young couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman, American Dreamz) and Zainab (Danai Gurira, Ghost Town). The new tenants have no idea that the apartment belonged to Walter, and he uncharacteristically takes pity on them, allowing them to stay. This decision impacts all of them, and Walter's passion for life is rekindled by the unlikely friendship.
When tragedy strikes the young couple, it opens Walter's eyes to a world that he would never have imagined exists so close to his own home: the horrors of the third world creeping into America.
There's an American election coming up, so it shouldn't be a surprise that we're seeing so many issue-driven films and documentaries arriving to theatres and DVD. For the one year out of four that many Americans actually pay attention to issues, they are throttled by messages and political messages from all angles. Most of these films are garbage, directors using their art as a platform for expressions better-suited to blog postings or genuinely skilled documentarians.
I mention all this because The Visitor is a truly heartfelt drama that would stand out as phenomenal, even if it didn't make a strong political statement at an important time. It does this by focusing first on storytelling and characters, then on the important issues. Walter is a fascinating character, and perhaps a stand-in for all of us. He is an expert on international economics and situations in the third world, and yet he's so caught up in his own life that nothing he teaches means anything to him anymore. In the times he's not teaching the same course he has for decades, he tries unsuccessfully to play the piano, but it doens't come naturally to him. When he starts learning the drums from Tarek, it works better both because Tarek is a good teacher, and because Walter himself is changing. He becomes younger over the course of the film, shaking off decades of American apathy. It's also a fabulous performance from Richard Jenkins, perhaps his best to date. We believe this character completely, and he invokes both frustration and pity.
The other actors are equally impressive. While neither Haaz Sleiman nor Danai Gurira is a recognizable name, both are remarkable discoveries. Tarek is one of the most immediately likable characters in recent memory, and I was shocked to learn that Gurira grew up in New York—both of them bring complete plausibility to their roles. Even if the plot had been completely separate from real situations, this would have been a truly phenomenal film.
Unfortunately, The Visitor is rooted in reality. It takes place in an ironic post-9/11 New York. On a boat trip, Zainab points out two locations to Tarek's mother: the gap where the twin towers used to stand, and the Statue of Liberty. For recent immigrants, these two locations represent a deeply fractured America. The Statue of Liberty still represents a land of welcome, freedom, and opportunity. The gap that used to be the World Trade Center has become a symbol of distrust, revoked freedoms, and instability for new immigrants to America. In The Visitor, we get to see both sides of the contemporary immigrant experience, in the vibrant lives of Tarek and Zainab, then in the conflict that follows.
In the end, The Visitor is both an affirming and challenging film. The development of Walter's character as he's impacted by the lives of his visitors is touching and life-affirming, though the experiences of the other characters is discouraging and disheartening at the same time. While I won't speak for anyone, I suspect that even fervent supporters of Bush administration will question the morality of the current system. Policy seems straightforward until people are involved.
Anchor Bay has done a fine job with this DVD release. After gaining so much festival attention, there must have been a lot of pressure to do a good job with this one. The video and audio transfers are certainly acceptable, though at times they reveal the low-budget nature of the film. On the most part, the image is detailed and well-saturated, though it lacks the crisp black level of current big-budget transfers. The sound transfer is excellent, with clear dialogue and a good music mix. There are quite a few special features as well, including a commentary track with Tom McCarthy and Richard Jenkins. We also get a production featurette, and a features on playing the Djembe. Finally, there are a few deleted scenes as well, rounding out a very solid package for fans of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Critics of the film could certainly claim that Tarek and Zainab get what's coming to them. After all, they are living in the United States illegally, and many will probably use that as a justification for what happens. To his credit, McCarthy neither defends or opposes the status of the young immigrants: he lets the characters speak for themselves and doesn't allow the film to become a simplistic morality tale. It is the complexity of the issues and thoughtful approach to the characters that make The Visitor so meaningful.
Despite my overall feelings about "message" films, The Visitor delivers on all its promises. It is a heartwarming drama in the best way, as well as a powerful indictment of the current political regime in the United States. It is without question a timely film, but I suspect that it will eventually be considered timeless as well—all thanks to the richness of its characters and script. The Visitor may not have made it to mainstream theatres, but there's no reason to miss it now that it's arrived on DVD. It comes highly recommended, regardless of your political opinions.
Tarek and Zainab are definitely not guilty, though I feel a bit differently about the U.S. Government.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Director Commentary
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