The Visitor (2007)

Dir. Thomas McCarthy
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, etc.
7/10

I know Penny and Grace saw this and liked it. I would recommend this to Mitchell and Kevin. Chris would probably be at least interested in this. The director is the same person who did The Station Agent. Just because you liked the latter doesn’t mean you will like the former. I thought The Station Agent was OK–likable characters, but a film that didn’t seem to go anywhere. This film has a better focus and better developed character. Penny thought that I wouldn’t care for this much, but I can’t say I blame her because I can understand why she would feel this way. Btw, I know this film just showed in Hawai’i last year, but imdb lists this is a 2007 film.

**
The film is about Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), an economics professor, whose going through the motions in his life. His life changes when he develops a relationship with a young Syrian immigrant, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend, Zainab (Jenai Gurira) in a chance encounter. Through music (specifically drumming), Walter and Tarek connect–so much so much that when Tarek is arrested and held an immigration detention, Walter goes out of his way to help. The film is primarily a character study–Walter’s development is the backbone of the story. But there are also interesting political observations that are fleshed out from this.

***(spoilers)
Usually in character driven films that I end up liking quite a bit, I have to end up liking the character or at least thinking highly of the performance. That’s not really the case in this film, which is a bit odd. Don’t get me wrong: I think Jenkins does a solid job, but I would expect liking his performance more, given how much I liked the film.

What makes the film so good is the direction (perhaps deserving of a nomination). Many of the scenes are well-crafted, showing character develop and sometimes simultaneously addressing political issues–mostly in a non preachy way. Let me start with Walter. In the opening scene, the filmmakers establish all the important details of the main character. We see him drinking wine in a large suburban home (he’s well-educated professional); he’s a middle-aged man just learning to play the piano (he loves music and he’s possibly seeking to grow); finally, we see a candid conversation–to the point of rudeness–between him and the instructor (he has no time for emotions, other’s or his own).

I also liked the way the filmmakers worked up to and revealed more of the inner life of the main character. I’m thinking particularly of the scene where Walter articulates and reveals the state of his life–especially the way this parallels with Mouna, Tarek’s mother, and creates a bond between them. (The scene where Mouna opens up was also well done.)

Another reason I really liked this film was the way the filmmakers used music in the film. While Walter has no time for emotions (perhaps because many emotions come out from mundane situations, situations where the emotions may be ultimately trivial); while he’s a kind of walking zombie–he responds well to music: music is the thing that brings him to life.
Music is also the thing that connects him with Tarek–and I liked what that implied.
For one thing, Walter does not respond to playing the piano (an instrument from his culture), but does respond to the drums (African). It’s a subtle way of saying and celebrating the idea that people–specifically people from the West and the Third World–can have a connection that transcends their cultures; that there is a common humanity. Again this message is implied by the scenes rather than preached by the director.

The filmmakers have more overt political scenes, my favorite being the one on the Staten Island Ferry. The enjoyment they got from the ride–seeing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island–and the fact that Walter’s indifference (he didn’t know you could walk up the Statue) provided a subtle but effect contrast between the appreciation of Muslims of our country with the indifference of many Americans. There are also other scenes that take a more direct and critical look at U.S. policy on immigration and terrorism in scenes involving Walter visiting Tarek and Tarek’s ultimate fate.

On a slightly unrelated note, there were several scenes that could have hurt the believability of the film and some viewers may not be convinced as much as I was. First, I’m thinking of the way Walter allows Tarek and Zainab to stay in his apartment. Haaz Sleiman, who plays Tarek, is a big reason for this. He just seems approachable and trustworthy, even though he violently attacks Walter (mistaking him for a burglar). A more important issue is the believability of Walter helping Tarek–to the point of hiring a lawyer in addition to giving free room and board to Zainab and Mouna. The scenes where Walter is getting into music (through Tarek) are so compelling that I believe he would help Tarek. But I understand if others don’t feel the same.

If there are false notes in the film, they come at the scene where Mouna departs for Syria. Two details felt like missteps to me. First, Walter lets Mouna go a little too easily. He probably hasn’t had enough time with her to develop anything deep, so maybe that justifies his rather cold send off. (He’s never going to see her again–and she and Tarek are probably going to have a very rough life.) Also, his reaction is in keeping with his character. So maybe this wasn’t so false, and maybe I was disappointed because I wished they could be together. (At the same time, I sensed the filmmakers didn’t want the standard Hollywood ending, and I sympathized with that.) The other problem was Mouna calling him “beloved” in Syrian(?). It just seemed a little too strong and false. Everything that happened before that scene didn’t support her calling him that. But that’s a minor problem. I also didn’t think the scene where Walter snaps in the prison felt particularly true either. It wasn’t completely false, but not entirely convincing either.

But, overall, I really enjoyed this film. When I started watching the film, I had a similar sensation I had at the start of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Both films present the audience with a particular premise: here’s an extreme character (either an emotionally callous and distant or the opposite), my film be about the way this character deals with a direct challenge to their character. The anticipation lies in seeing how this all unfolds. Both films make the viewer’s time and attention worth it.

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