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Thread: Todd Mccarthy: The Visitor (2008)

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    Todd Mccarthy: The Visitor (2008)

    Todd McCarthy: The Visitor (2008)

    A sad awakening

    Review by Chris Knipp

    Much of the art of the writer-director and cast of The Visitor resides in the fact that nobody gets in the way of the important story the film tells, which is essentially a parable. What might happen, it seems to ask, if average white middle-class Americans became truly sensitive to the horrific plight of many foreigners in this county? The strength of The Visitor is that the intense feelings it awakens lead to some serious thoughts.

    Our average guy is an intelligent professional who's tellingly cut off from the rest of the world, even what's immediately around him. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a widowed professor like Dennis Quaid's character in the much inferior Smart People--not an egocentric bore like the latter, however, but an essentially decent person. Walter is impeccably dressed, polite to everyone, but reserved and distant. Walter, as he admits later, is just "pretending." He's dried up; has ceased to be fully alive. He lives alone in Connecticut where he teaches, and is detached toward students and colleagues alike. Remarkably, since he still seems to have a reputation, he has not revised his course on global economics for fifteen years. He's published books and claims he's finishing another but isn't really working on anything. He dabbles with piano lessons, in honor of his late wife, a celebrated pianist, but that isn't going anywhere; he keeps firing his teachers.

    Walter has recently agreed to be listed as co-author of a paper another teacher wrote. When the real author can't read the paper at an NYU conference, he has to go. That takes him back to a New York apartment he used to share with his wife which he's left unoccupied for some time. When he enters it and discovers its been illegally rented to a young Syrian man and his Senegalese girlfriend, his life is changed.

    The uninvited occupants are Tarik Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), a drummer who's in a small jazz band and also likes to jam in the park, and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), who makes original jewelry she sells on the street. They immediately gather their possessions to move out, but Walter takes pity on them and lets them stay provisionally. Obviously Walter could use some excitement. The couple are focused, energetic, alive, radiant with hope--all Walter has ceased to be. Tarik is extremely outgoing, warm, friendly to Walter. His drumming immediately engages Walter and before long the uptight professor is trying his hand at it. Zainab however is cautious and fearful. For good reason, as it turns out, since neither she nor Tarik is in this country legally.

    What happens later is heart-wrenching not only for the young couple but for Walter, and perhaps for viewers, some of whom may identify with the American professor, others with the two outsiders, who have so much to offer yet aren't wanted here. Walter becomes deeply involved, to the extent of a burgeoning relationship with Tarik's widowed mother Mouna (Hiam Abbas), and he does the best he can, but he ends up angry and helpless.

    The US has only 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's prisoners and the highest incarceration rate of any country. This is part of the story told here, because many would-be immigrants in the US are in long-term open-ended detention, another scandal and horror perpetrated in America of which The Visitor provides a haunting, vivid glimpse. The film conveys a clear sense of the insensitivity and blind arbitrariness of a US immigration system that grinds up lives rapidly and heedlessly behind unmarked walls.

    Todd McCarthy's first film, The Station Agent, was a well-received indie artifact, quirky and cute. It was pitch-perfect in its way, but a little fey. This time he's done something completely different: The Visitor by clear implication takes a pretty strong, if generalized, stand on immigration issues; speaks out not for an oddball few but for multitudes of ordinary people, and does so forcefully. Yet it's not preachy. Its narrative follows a course that's seemingly obvious but keeps grabbing you just the same.

    There are many immigration stories, often lengthy, intricate, and epic. This one has the simplicity and occasional sketchiness of a short story. There is admirable restraint in that. What's also significantly different from many citizenship sagas is the way The Visitor draws an American of privilege into the picture as more than a mere observer. This has a kind of Brechtian effect for the American viewer. This isn't "us." But it was "us"--was our ancestors, our parents or grandparents. How many degrees of separation are we hiding behind? The movie may seem at times to move toward facile conclusions. Walter's transformation comes quickly. Some necessary explanations are omitted. But The Visitor is elegantly constructed, and doesn't end with any easy resolutions.

    One main way the film avoids interfering with its story is that the experienced Richard Jenkins and the three other principal actors, Haaz Sleiman, Hiam Abbas, and Danai Jekesai Gurira, never overdo or underplay. They just seem like they're being themselves, which is an actor's triumph but also a director's. And McCarthy is also the writer. The whole film is an admirable illustration of the maxim Less is more. McCarthy and his cast make it all look easy--and that's not easy.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-24-2008 at 01:00 AM.

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    Criticisms of The Visitor .

    My review excentuates the positive: I was touched. And, let's face it, I'm sympathetic to the political message here--I'm also convinced there is one--sympathetic toward "Third World" visitors, especially the kind, like Tarik, who stand likely to be profiled, and are victimized by the current brutal form of the US immigration system.

    But The Visitor isn't without flaws. Some of these are pointed out by Peter Rainer in his Christian Science Moniter review and others by Scott Foundas in the Village Voice Neither reviewer is the last bit pleased with the movie.

    With its straightforward and telegraphic tale, The Visitor surely runs the risk of seeming cliched and oversimplified. Rainer points to the questionable and familiar trope he calls "Pallid white guy needs swarthy exotic companion in order to feel alive again. " Tarik indeed does function like Sergio Castellitto's Italian chef in Mostly Martha, who steps in to bring the disenchanted, glum German cook back to life--a device that in the German film I found facile. Cooking pasta and banging on a drum are awfully easy ways of finding one's inner elan vitale.

    You can see weaknesses in the character of Walter, both as conceived and as portrayed by Jenkins. Besides, Rainer has a point when he says, "Jenkins is so understated that he fades into the background even when he's meant to be front and center." This is the weakness of giving a character actor with usually minor roles the responsability of carrying most of a film. Rainer describes Jenkins as "one of those actors who avoids doing the obvious in a scene by doing very little at all. Some may call this super subtlety. I call it underpowered." Again, a valid criticism. But nonetheless the situations on screen convey a good sense of Walter's growing involvement and anger, I think, despite his Buster Keaton deadpan. I do not agree with Rainer's claim (and Foundas makes a similar one) that McCarthy is "careful not to take a political stand" and is "squishy" about a "hard-hitting topic." The narrative in itself is a strong stand, and it's unperceptive of Ranier to miss that.

    Mouna, as adeptly played by Hiam Abbas, is an extremely appealing character, but one depicted with somewhat over-easy strokes. Mouna shows up awfully quickly and easily on Walter's New York doorstep. She's a little too noble and beautiful. Most Syrian moms don't look like this, outside of the movies. The moment it seems to her necessary, Mouna heads off to Syria with equal ease, apparently knowing she can't come back. After many years in America, would she give up this life so fast? Wouldn't she at least have involvements in Michigan, where she lives, that she'd have to deal with first?

    As for Foundas, he begins strong; at least for me, because I agree with his evaluation of The Station Agent as "an exercise in forced whimsy and catharsis." And, if you sympathize with this view, he stands to get some good mileage out of his comparison of McCarthy's two films--the parallel reliance on offbeat friendships for a heartwarming resolution, the parallel device of starting out with a bereaved person who needs bringing out of his shell. Unfortunately however the body of Foundas' review is mostly just an ill-humored walk through the plot without any very cogent arguments. He concludes that "McCarthy unquestionably means well, but he's made one of those incredibly naïve movies that gives liberals a bad name, and which does more to regress the sociopolitical discourse than advance it. " I can't agree with much of that. Our national "sociopolitical discourse" is pretty "regressed" already. The Visitor could put some heart into it--although, one must grant this is a liberal film for liberal guilt, not terribly likely to soften the hearts of hard-core post-9/11 fans of Muslim lockups and walls along the Texas border.

    The arc The Visiter describes is predictable. But one doesn't need to be surprised to be moved. Besides, what isn't predictable is that things are basically left up in the air at the end. That saves the movie from seeming too pat.

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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    He concludes that "McCarthy unquestionably means well, but he's made one of those incredibly naïve movies that gives liberals a bad name, and which does more to regress the sociopolitical discourse than advance it. " I can't agree with much of that. Our national "sociopolitical discourse" is pretty "regressed" already. The Visitor could put some heart into it--although, one must grant this is a liberal film for liberal guilt, not terribly likely to soften the hearts of hard-core post-9/11 fans of Muslim lockups and walls along the Texas border.

    I don't know that anything can "soften the hearts of hard-core post-9/11 fans of Muslim lockups and walls along the Texas border". I also tend to view films like The Visitor, and Patricia Riggen's Under the Same Moon, benignly. These are well-made, effective films that serve as a corrective to the anti-immigrant discourse pervading our culture at this time. It's "pretty regressed already". You got that right. A substantial number of critics have liked both films. I realize they're not great films but it's April and one can do worse, much worse. These films humanize "the other". I also think that Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? does some of that, however slight and silly it is. For films to have an effect on the popular culture, they have to appeal to mainstream audiences and these films do just that. More films dealing with immigration are ready for release. I'm curious about Sundance-winner Frozen River.
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 04-24-2008 at 05:52 PM.

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    I haven't seen Under the Same Moon. You were very lukewarm about it, one reason why I didn't. In critical terms according to Metacritic that one and The Visitor aren't really in the same class at all. Watch The Visitor and see what you think. The latter might be equally or more an arthouse movie, but since it lacks subtitles and the other has them, it would have more outreach probably. I will grant that The Visitor has perhaps gotten a better reception from me due to the dearth of good stuff at the moment.

    But the SFIFF is starting!

    Misma Luna=59 The Onion AV: "A harmless feel-good movie."

    Visitor=80 The Onion AV: "A low-key, naturalistic, beautifully observed character study. . . an actors' showcase."

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