The Visitor (2007)
The Visitor is a beautiful and unassuming film by so-called independent filmmaker Thomas McCarthy. With 'independent' in this context, I am referring to the fact that McCarthy has made a name for himself making film of high artistic quality without big money backing from production companies, but rather by garnering good reviews premiering his films at festivals. His first feature, The Station Agent, was a feel-good film about a train-loving achondroplasic; his second combines a deeply heart-felt character portrait with a powerful philanthropic, left-wing blow to the American immigration system. A system whose inertness allows for human bonds to be created and roots to be grown, before the same system's cruelty breaks them down. The Visitor tells an important story - quite similar to a situation I personally experienced in my country with a Kosovan family a few years back.
Richard Jenkins stars as a demotivated, world-weary professor whose life consists of little more than going through the motions, both professionally and personally. The only thing that slightly awakes his passion is music. Everything else, including people, he stays away from if he can. Throughout his career, Jenkins has been an unnoticeable (albeit versatile) character actor whose face you'd hardly even remember, but during the first half of The Visitor, he breathes life into this sad but good man by means of only a minimal of dialogue and a series of slight and suppressed gestures. His performance is so subtle and understanding that, although his personality is anything but generous, our sympathy for him is total from the very beginning. And when towards the end of the film he exhibits a short moment of insensitivity, we feel as ashamed as he does.
As Walter starts to befriend his illicit tenant Tarek, he slowly awakes from his emotional hibernation. The friendship and goodness exhibited in The Visitor is completely heart-warming. And it doesn't come off as false, because these people fulfil important needs in one another - needs that are in essence selfish, but which results in the complete opposite. There is little doubt that this is McCarthy's message here. He wants to embrace the richness and opportunity deriving from socializing across cultural borders. And he is deeply critical of the inhumanity of the deportation system of the Bush administration. It is the illegality which brings Walter and Tarek/Mouna together, but it is how Tarek's situation is handled by the system which ultimately will decide their fate.
The Visitor's bittersweet tone is greatly effective, because it is all so wretchedly well balanced by McCarthy. From the insightful and layered script to his stylish execution, McCarthy is emerging as one of the most important new filmmakers in the United States this decade. In The Visitor he actuates a well of different emotions, and he does it in a graceful and believable manner. The keywords here are old-fashioned concepts such as warmth and decency. Well, with the addition of the universal concept of rhythm, naturally.