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. Continue reading