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Stranger in a Strange Land
by Mel Valentin on Apr 18, 2008
Actor-turned-filmmaker Thomas McCarthy’s first film, The Station Agent, received almost universal acclaim from both critics and audience. With that much acclaim for a first effort, McCarthy could have easily gone down as a one-hit wonder, repeat himself with a similar story or characters, or try a different subject matter. The result, The Visitor, a drama centered on a college professor reawakening to meaningful human connection, is a well-structured, poignant film that never crosses over into overt sentimentality, heavy-handed contrivance, or political grandstanding.
Despondent over the loss of his wife and uninspired by academic study, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a middle-aged professor at Connecticut College, drifts through his lectures, pretends to work on his latest economics tome, and tries to learn to play the piano (he fails, miserably). When the co-author of an economics paper becomes unavailable (she’s pregnant and about to give birth), the department chairman taps Vale to give a presentation at a global economics conference at NYU in Manhattan. Reluctant, Vale eventually agrees. Luckily for Vale, he still rents an apartment in Manhattan; however, he hasn’t been there in a long time.
When he gets to Manhattan and his apartment, he discovers an immigrant couple, Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), an Arab Muslim from Syria, and Tarek’s girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), a Senegalese Muslim woman. Tarek and Zainab claim they’ve rented the apartment from a friend of theirs, Omar (Waleed Zuaiter). After a heated confrontation, Vale relents and decides to let the couple remain in his apartment, at first for a few days, then indefinitely. Tarek’s gregariousness immediately endears him to Vale, as does Tarek’s offer to teach Vale how to play the drum. Zainab is far more reluctant to engage Vale, however. After Tarek lands in detention, his mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), appears at Vale’s door.
McCarthy’s screenplay has numerous strengths, chief among Vale’s gradual, but always believable transformation from a man who’s disconnected from the world around, from the people around him, as he faces retirement alone (his only son lives in London). The surrogate family he creates along with Tarek and Zainab is, of course, a fragile one, less because of any tensions than because of Tarek and Zainab’s immigration status (they’re illegal). The personal transformation through new experiences (and new people) isn’t new, of course, but that’s less important than how McCarthy handles Vale’s transformation (i.e., with subtlety, sensitivity, and compassion).
McCarthy also gives Tarek and Zainab enough shading to make them recognizably human, rather than caricatures that can be easily manipulated for political or polemical ends. They each want to do what they love, music for Tarek, jewelry design for Zainab, and live modestly while they make a life for themselves in their adopted country and home. Simple desires, though, are no match for Homeland Security’s bureaucracy, a bureaucracy that treats anyone unlucky enough to be detained as less-than-human and thus, ineligible for the same basic rights enjoyed (or presumably enjoyed) by most Americans.
If The Visitor can be criticized for anything, it’s that Vale’s personal transformation pushes Tarek and Zainab’s difficult plight into the background, a problem that undermined similarly structured films like Mississippi Burning and Schindler’s List. But as potentially problematic as that might be (and, to be fair, it is), McCarthy made sure to imbue his characters with enough emotional depth and complex backstories to make them strong, sympathetic ones and not caricatures used to score cheap political points.
McCarthy’s intentions aside, The Visitor is all the more watchable due to Richard Jenkins nuanced, understated, believable performance as Vale. McCarthy also picked his supporting cast well: there’s never a false note or over-emphatic gesture from Haaz Sleiman’s exuberant performance as Tarek, Danai Jekesai Gurira’s low-key performance as Zainab, and Hiam Abbass’ melancholy, seen-it-all performance as Mouna. With engaging, heartfelt performances, a thought-provoking script, and polemic-free direction, McCarthy’s second film justifies all the acclaim he received for The Station Agent and then some.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
by Mel Valentin on Apr 18, 2008