It would be easy to say that writer-director Tom McCarthy makes films about lonely people, or that that’s all he does. It’s not entirely inaccurate — the quartet at the center of his latest film, The Visitor, are strangers whose disparate lives intertwine much like the trio that anchored his previous film, The Station Agent — but it’s also dangerously reductive. What made The Station Agent so good was its honest look at the complicated ways people connect with each other, and how someone can stumble into your life one day and become an irreplaceable part of it inside a week. McCarthy has preserved that sense of honest discovery in The Visitor, an engaging, expertly drawn, and moving examination of one man’s empty life and the way he comes to fill it again. The character at the center of the film is lonely, yes, and even bears some surface similarities to Fin, the hero of The Station Agent. But more than the loneliness, McCarthy’s focus is on its cause, its damages, and its cure. He doesn’t just make films about lonely people; he makes films about those people finding the hope they thought had been lost.
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a quiet college professor in Connecticut who, by design and happy accident, keeps the people in his life well outside the walls he’s built around his emotions. His class lectures are delivered in a bored monotone; he turns away a student who needs help without a further question or thought; he even attempts to pick up some piano skills but burns through five teachers, never getting more than a couple lessons in before sending them off. He’s a widower, but McCarthy is far too gifted to telegraph this information with anything so trite as, say, having Walter visit the cemetery while melodramatic strings serve as cheap auditory cues. The state of Walter’s existence and the rhythms of his life alone are communicated through nothing more forced than the way he cooks dinner by himself or somehow avoids speaking to colleagues even when surrounded by them. In a role that largely relies on body language instead of dialogue to contextualize emotion, Jenkins is nothing less than amazing at using the angle of his jaw, the tic of his head, or the movement of his eyes to create a fully realized man out of nothing more than a dress shirt and an old tweed coat.
When a colleague falls ill, it’s up to Walter to drive down to New York to present a paper he co-authored at a conference. Upon returning to the apartment he keeps in the city but rarely visits, he discovers something that manages to faze even him: A naked Senegalese woman in his bathtub. The woman is Zainab (Danai Gurira), and she and her boyfriend, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), have been crashing in Walter’s apartment after it was illegally sublet to them by some guy Walter’s never heard of. Walter manages to convince them that he’s the apartment’s rightful owner, at which point they leave and attempts to find somewhere else to stay. A few minutes later, Walter catches up to them and invites them to stay at his place until they find new lodging. It’s not that Walter has some kind of revelation about the kind of man he wants to be or used to be, and it’s not like a switch got flipped. He just (evidently) realized that he wouldn’t be around too much, and he didn’t begrudge them the space, and he saw that they would have to sleep on the street, and so he offered his spare room. He just makes one decision, and from that the film slowly grows into something grander and more complex. McCarthy’s film keeps changing its perspective and broadening its scope throughout, constantly readjusting its supposed premise until the final story is bigger and more compelling than could possibly have been predicted.
That’s because Tarek and Zainab bring two important things to Walter’s life and the story itself: Music and religion. Over dinner at Walter’s apartment, Zainab declines to drink wine while Tarek helps himself, saying with a grin, “She’s a good Muslim; I’m a bad one.” McCarthy is not a stupid man, and knows exactly what he’s doing by not just making Walter’s new roommates minority citizens but also (a) Muslims in (b) New York City. Tarek’s first mention of his religion is casual, but it gradually comes to play a larger part in Walter’s life as he gets to know Tarek. Tarek’s a struggling musician, carting his djembe from one gig to another and often stopping to jam in a drum circle in the park. The music reaches Walter in a way nothing else does, and McCarthy eventually peels back another layer to reveal that Walter’s departed wife was a classical pianist, and the slow rise of emotion that retrospectively colors Walter’s musical strivings and his newfound connection with Tarek through music is beautiful and tragic all at once. Tarek gives Walter lessons and a spare drum and even drags him along to the drum circle in the park; the first physical contact Walter makes with anyone in the film is when he and Tarek are sitting next to each other on a bench in a subway station, shoulders touching in the manner of close friends driven in by a crowd.
The rest of the film charts Walter’s developing relationship with Tarek and Zainab and the way it comes to be adversely affected by the fallout of 9/11. It would be another kind of injustice altogether to reveal what happens, but it sends Walter on the kind of slow-burn journey of the soul that McCarthy seems to have no trouble summoning from the ether and capturing on film. Jenkins is so phenomenal in his commitment to the character and service to the story that the glory of his performance is often easy to miss: He never engages in any kind of grandstanding, choosing instead to channel his transformative energy into Walter’s place in the story at large. He’s got an amazing support system in Sleiman, as well, who brings to life a man struggling to balance love for his family, joy in his art, and anger at being mistreated by his adopted government because of his color and creed. Gurira’s work as Zainab is wonderful, too, especially in the way she and Walter take a while to warm to each other. What’s more, Hiam Abbass is fantastic as Mouna, Tarek’s mother, whose relationship with Walter is as true and honest and subtle and affective as you’d expect from McCarthy. The film is a beautiful and soaring confirmation of everything that’s best about people and the ways they come together in times of trouble and trial, and McCarthy’s storytelling never falters. He has done something very hard: He has created indelible characters, names and faces and hearts whose melody lingers long after the music has faded away.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.The Better Angels of Our Nature
Film | April 14, 2008 | Comments ()