Summertime at the cinema is synonymous with big-budget blockbusters, and it's easy for a quiet film like Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor to get lost in amongst the flash and trash. While there's no denying the popcorn appeal of a well-constructed superhero movie like Iron Man, it would be a shame to miss a subtle stunner like director McCarthy's second feature film. After dodging through the hordes out for Sex and the City, slipping into the theatre showing The Visitor - with all of maybe 10 other people - was a quiet respite from the noisy masses. The ensuing 100 minutes or so proved to be a subtly moving cinematic treat, a simple story set in New York City that was the antithesis of the more famous Big Apple-set film playing at the theatre.
The Visitor begins with Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins in a remarkable performance), a lonely widower who's been living on autopilot for years. Walter is an economics professor at a Connecticut college who has long since lost interest in his students and his research, deadened to the world around him. Walter's only joy in life comes from his love of music, but even there he meets with frustration, owing to his futile piano lessons with his hilariously unencouraging teacher - "if you plan on giving up, I'd love to buy your piano from you," she tells him after another unproductive lesson. Walter's "get out of jail" card comes when he is shipped to New York for a conference, when he decides to stay in his old apartment that he hasn't lived in for 25 years. Upon returning to his old home, he stumbles across an illegal immigrant couple, Syrian djembe drummer Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese jewelry-making girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira). Whether motivated by loneliness or compassion, Walter decides to let them stay, and quickly becomes friends with the amiable Tarek. Encouraged by Tarek's drum lessons, Walter is injected with a renewed vigour for life, and he is slowly able to emerge from his listless stupor. Even as things turn ugly when Tarek is thrown in a detention centre and threatened with deportation, Walter cannot return to a life of apathy, and he devotes his energy to Tarek's cause.
The simple "new lease on life" story of the The Visitor is buoyed by the outstanding cast. Jenkins is masterfully restrained as Walter, a man who is so removed from the world that he appears to have lost the ability to show emotion. Yet the spark that keeps him going is his love of music, and Jenkins is able to find the humour in a middle-aged man gettin' his groove on without making him ridiculous. Walter's cathartic re-entry into the world is both joyful and jarring thanks to Jenkins' carefully considered portrayal. Sleiman lights up the screen as Tarek, a character with such a contagious joie de vivre that it's genuinely heartbreaking to see his happiness edge away at every prison visit from Walter. Gurira's performance as Zainab is just as impressive. While at first Zainab is standoffish and guarded around Walter, when he gains her trust she opens up to reveal a personality equally radiant to Tarek's. Hiam Abbass plays Tarek's fiercely loyal mother Mona, who at first glance appears to be a hard case. But Abbass gives Mona a tender vulnerability, and it becomes clear that like Walter, she has been living in a self-imposed cage. Watching Walter and Mona help each other embrace life again felt like a rare experience marked by a paradoxically wisened sense of innocence.
It's rare to watch an unglamourized New York City on the big screen, and McCarthy quietly exposes some of the unsavoury aspects of post-9/11 NYC. As Walter waits his turn to visit Tarek in the detention centre, a darkly ironic poster reading "The Strength of America...America's immigrants" stares at him. McCarthy subtly lands in a minefield of immigrant issues with his seemingly humble film, projecting a distinct sense of inequity without preaching. This is, after all, Walter's story of reawakening, bittersweet as it may be. The greatest gift that Tarek gives Walter in return for is hospitality extends beyond mere drumming skills. As the closing sequence signifies, Walter is given a beautiful new medium with which to express his emotions, whether it be the joy of love and friendship or anger towards the injustice of the world.
. m u s i c .: The La's