Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in an absorbing, powerful film called “The Visitor.” While this low-key, underplayed film is humanistic and realistic in the extreme, memories of the dead loom over the characters like silent, watchful ghosts. The Visitor was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who several years back gave us another extraordinary film, “The Station Agent.” Like that earlier film, The Visitor explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, but this film also looks at immigration and other post-9/11 issues, and indicts the US government for its arbitrary, callous policies. It is a mark of McCarthy’s mature sensibility that the film makes this indictment quietly and subtly, by engaging us with a charismatic and likable young man living an attractive, authentic life, and then arbitrarily taking that life away from him. This stands in contrast to more traditional “Hollywood” fare, a movie like “Rendition”, which makes its indictment with a bludgeon. And the immigration issues, while crucial to the plot and deeply disturbing, are clearly secondary to the psychological and interpersonal matters this gifted director wants to explore. His vision is psychologically sound, particularly evident in the way he deals with grief.
“The Visitor” revolves around a depressed, middle aged economics professor named Walter Vale, played by the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher patriarch in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” With his hunched shoulders, immobile expression, furrowed brow and everyman face, Richard Jenkins literally inhabits this character. It’s a restrained performance, yet highly effective. While neither the circumstances of Vale’s wife’s death nor when she died are ever specified, it is clear that Vale continues to carry the weight of his grief, and that grief has transformed him into a silent, somber, disaffected man, lonely and isolated, floating through life, or rather going through the motions of his life, teaching his class, attending faculty meetings, pretending to work on a fourth book, and returning every night to his neatly kept suburban home.
It’s not that he isn’t trying to find some avenue back into the world, and some enjoyment or at least engagement in life. He’s been taking piano lessons, but while it is clear here that both he and his wife loved music, she was the pianist, and as the movie opens we find him dismissing his fourth piano teacher, played to spinsterish perfection by veteran actress Marian Seldes. I can’t help mentioning here that Seldes eerily reminded me in this role of my own elderly spinsterish piano teacher of long ago. Her name was Alma Drum, and she used to place a pencil under my hands just the way this one does with Vale. Miss Drum was as petite as she was stern and humorless, with her helmet of gray hair. Miss Drum would by now be about a hundred and thirty years old. (Hmmm, maybe I should meditate on her for a while, and do a post on her.)
We get some sense that Vale must have been something in his heyday, and we find some hope that he can actually make a spiritual comeback when circumstance forces him goes to present a paper at New York University, and he arrives at a Village apartment he and his late wife owned, but he hasn’t been to in years. There he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters in residence, Tarek, a Syrian musician played with winning charm and charisma by Haaz Slieiman, and his girlfriend Zainab, who is originally from Senegal and makes jewelry which she sells from a table on the street, the character played with with wary fierceness by exotic beauty Danai Guiria. These two freak out when he arrives; they think they were living in the apartment legally, and they offer to leave immediately. Walter agrees, but then realizes the couple has nowhere else to go, and changes his mind, for reasons even he doesn’t quite grasp. They stay, and Walter befriends them, first Tarek, who embodies youth in all its impetuous enthusiasm, and eventually Zainab, who is aloof and wary at first, but who gradually comes around. Now we begin to see some sparks of life in this graying, somber character, as Tarek introduces him to the lively New York City jazz scene, the filmaker here celebrating New York City in all its diversity. Finally, Walter Vale begins to take the first steps out of his isolation, most particularly in a scene of extraordinary power in which the reluctant Vail joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, a balding white man in a suit amidst the primarily black, hip drummers, dancers, and percussionists.
But then Tarek is arrested for no wrongdoing while with Walter in the subway, imprisoned in the kind of unnamed, unidentified detention center we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, this one somewhere in Queens. The arrest and the imprisonment are both arbitrary and capricious, a disturbing reminder that human rights are being violated every day in this country. I love Salon’s Stephanie Zacharack’s description of a scene that highlights Jenkins’s subtle performance:
Jenkins is extraordinary here, not because he does anything big, but because everything he does is so economical and intuitive. At one point Walter visits Tarek in the dismal Queens detention center where he’s being held. He’s carrying a letter from Zainab, who can’t visit Tarek without risking deportation herself. Tarek stops Walter from slipping the letter under the Plexiglas divider between them, which is forbidden. But he tells Walter it’s OK for him to hold the letter up to the partition, so he can read it.
Walter holds the letter to the glass and instinctively turns his head, a way of allowing Tarek privacy. This is the sort of subtle actor’s moment that a dumb director could ruin, by letting the camera linger just a fraction of a second too long, or by adding melodramatic music to intensify the effect. But McCarthy underplays everything here. There are places where a character will ask Walter a question, and instead of countering with a line of dialogue, Jenkins responds with just a look: This is that rare script written by someone who understands that writing doesn’t just mean dialogue.
As a writer myself, I agree. I had a writing teacher who constantly encouraged me to use “ellipsis.” Sometimes less really is more. Allow the reader (or observer) to fill in the blanks.
I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t describe what happens with too much additional detail, except to say that the film turns out to be about not only the friendship and connection that develops between Tarek and Walter, who becomes the go-between of Zainab and the now imprisoned man, and about Walter’s attempts to help Tarek before he is deported, which could happen at any moment as arbitrarily as the arrest and with no recourse.
The film is also about the unlikely romantic relationship that develops between Walter and Mouna, Tarek’s mother who arrives from Michigan. Mouna, played with quiet dignity by Hiam Abbass, is burdened by her own grief over her husband, a Syrian imprisoned by the government for writing a newspaper article, whose death precipitated this mother and son’s flight to America from their own country. This relationship is deeply moving and adult and amazingly believable, the vision of a remarkably astute director who though he may be young (I suspect he is young) clearly understands and sympathizes with these two people who carry such heavy burdens and reach out to each other.
Equally believable and subtle is the relationship that develops between Mouna and Zainab, both women devastated by the uncertain future of the young man they both love deeply. Again, we can see the subtly nuanced, restrained, instinctive and humanistic vision of this filmmaker when Mouna first encounters Zainab, and she exclaims quietly to Walter, “She’s VERY black.” That’s all. It’s such a subtle and powerful line of dialogue, delivered with such perfect cadence, that it comes off as a completely believable reaction from this character, and serves to reinforce and make her even more believable. A lesser director might have ruined the moment by adding more. The line is also a testament to how everything works together here. The film, having been both written and directed by McCarthy, reminds us of the very best “auteur” work of directors like Paul Mazursky, whom I met a few weeks ago in Washington, and Woody Allen.
I highly recommend “The Visitor” not only for its deep understanding of and compassion for grief, but also for its remarkable embrace of life in all its complexity, ambiguity, and possibility. Sometimes even just a brief glimpse of possibility is enough.