I don’t know about you, but I am kind of a sucker for the “small” film. Not necessarily indie, but small. Small in scope, small in budget, small in subject, usually small in audience. A good example of an indie film is “Clerks”. A good example of a small film is “Sideways”. Of course, “Sideways” garnered a large audience, and rightfully so. Many small films are not as successful.
Actor/writer/Director Tom McCarthy’s 2nd film “The Visitor” is a small film with great depth, superb performances and emotional power that unfortunately will be as ignored by the general populace just as his marvelous 1st film, “The Station Agent” was. Why the majority of filmgoers prefer spending 2 hours in a veritable pinball machine is beyond me. Is life really that boring?
McCarthy seems to gravitate towards the round character; his main subjects change as they come into contact with others, or into new situations. They are damaged by life, it’s travails and injustices. They are healed by being thrust into a different world, and are shown the possibilities offered that they have missed so far. Plot-lines take a back seat to this development, which is fine with me. I’ve heard the great director Alexander Payne quoted that he gets handed lots of scripts, but that he loses interest as soon as the plot kicks in. That being the case I am sure he loves the work of McCarthy.
In “The Visitor”, veteran supporting role man Richard Jenkins gets a lead role (Walter Vale) with about as many lines as one of his bit parts. He does the bulk of communication with his physical demeanor. Playing a widowed professor with tenure, he gives every indication that he is a man marking time in jail. A half-hearted attempt at learning piano is his sole foray into change, but it is as successful as all half-hearted attempts are.
What plot there is in “The Visitor” consists of Vale being bullied into presenting a paper he co-authored (but fittingly did not write) at a conference in NYC. He happens to have an apartment there, so he does not need a hotel room. How a college professor can afford to hold onto an unoccupied flat in Greenwich Village in present day NYC is never explained, but certainly crosses the mind. Upon arriving, he finds that there are two illegal immigrants living there, having been subletted the apartment by some unknown person. They leave quietly, but soon Walter realizes that they will be homeless, and offers his place to them for at least another night. The couple (and they ARE a couple) proceed to win over Walter, and become the impetus for his rebirth. Tarek (played winningly by Haaz Sleiman) plays the djembe, an African drum, with small, exotic jazz combos around town. Since Tarek himself is small and exotic, he fits right in. Tarek is also quite charming, and Walter takes to him very quickly. Tarek’s other half, Zainab (Danai Gurira) is a lovely Senegalese jewelry maker, selling as a street vendor. Her principal characteristic is devotion to Tarek.
But it is Tarek and Walter’s friendship that drives the film, and helps to transform and challenge Walter. Tarek teaches the djembe to Walter, which the prof finds far less a challenge than piano. When Tarek is unjustly arrested for turnstile jumping, and subsequently detained for his immigrant status, Walter becomes his only link with the world.
A beautifully understated performance by Hiam Abass as Tarek’s mother adds the perfect mid-movie dynamic. All interactions in this film are believable, as rare as that seems. Not so believable are some of the empty New York City streets, particularly show-time in the Broadway Theatre district. They must have gone during the stage-hand strike. That and the throw-away apartment are the only false notes heard in this sweet and moving film. “The Visitor” packs a lot into a small package; great performances, some wonderfully comic scenes, a serious political message and some real character depth.