The Visitor is to this year's Oscars what Juno was last year – a wild card indie movie with a surprise nomination. How it differs is in its failure to win what it was nominated for (Richard Jenkins – Best Actor), yet that makes it in no way a lesser movie. The depth of the issues and the performances reach places Juno had no hope or expectation of reaching, and aside from its Oscar nomination and independent status there are few other similarities, yet I really enjoyed both films, and hope to see more American independent films not shy to whisper its message instead of shout it out.
The Visitor sees Walter (Richard Jenkins), a suburban middle class teacher disenchanted with his job, sent to a conference in New York on an academic paper he has no interest in. Once he arrives at the apartment he owns in the city, but seldom visits, Walter finds a young foreign couple living there without his knowledge. He allows them to stay until they can find somewhere else and forms an unlikely bond with the man, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), through a mutual love of music. When Tarek is arrested and detained as an illegal immigrant, his mother (Hiam Abbass) comes to stay with Walter and the emotion of the situation leads way to a gentle romance between them which liberates Walter from his old unfulfilling life.
As is the case with character-based films, a synopsis does not do the work justice. It is a film of subtlety rarely found in American cinema and the slow and quiet pace give room for the audience to drift into Walter's pace of life seamlessly. From the very beginning it is hard not to warm to Jenkins' character – a quiet, gentle man who is clearly not comfortable with how his life is going, something so many people can easily identify with, regardless of nationality. Alone after the death of his wife, it seems as though Walter has been treading water with her gone, lacking the inspiration to move on. Yet it is clear the will is there, and is exposed in his attempts at piano lessons, shown near the beginning of the film in a lovely sequence where his old lady piano teacher says that if he ever intends to give up she'd love to buy his piano.
This is a film of small moments shared; of a look, a movement, a small gesture. After Walter first meets the couple in his flat and they leave, he sees a framed photo of them that they left behind, so follows them and hands it back. It is in this gesture and in Tarek's ginger reclamation of the picture that we are shown the beginnings of a bond that will bring these people of different race and culture together and eventually tear them apart. It's in these small moments that writer/director Tom McCarthy constructs an emotive story, and as an actor himself is concerned most keenly with performance. No surprise then that all performances are very strong. It would be all too easy for Jenkins to dominate as the focus of the narrative and due to his superb performance, but everyone around him is equally impressive. Sleiman is brilliant as the instantly likable Tarek, and newcomer Danai Gurira complements him superbly as his dour girlfriend Zainab. Haim Abbass completes the multi-cultural cast with a delicate and affecting turn as Tarek's mother; the chemistry between her and Jenkins pans out beautifully as they tentatively grow fonder of each other.
The Visitor is not only a character-based film though, there is a strong and unavoidable political side to its narrative. Walter is used as the vehicle for which to explore how the American government treats immigrants today, and the hypocrisy underlying an inviting image the country cultivates as the 'land of the free'. The optimism of Walter's break from the conformity of his old tired life through the embracing of foreign culture is tinged with the bitter tragedy of Tarek's fate, yet there is a wonderful celebration of the diversity city life can bring, showing McCarthy is not totally down on the US.
This is also a film about the transcendent power of music – an art form that breaks down racial and cultural boundaries and can unify people of differing backgrounds (an idea Bob Marley championed courageously). The music, from the African drumming to the non-diagetic soundtrack, composed by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek, is all wonderful, and serves to highlight the progressing moods of the film.
The final subway busking shot is, like the rest of the film, subtly brilliant, conveying the anger Walter feels interpreted into primitive musical catharsis with simple djambe drumming, connoting the bond that he will always share with Tarek, no matter their physical proximity. I've been waiting for Jenkins to have a lead role in something since I saw his infrequent though always memorable appearances in Six Feet Under. I have not been disappointed.
A solid anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer that gets the contrast about right and is sharp without popping off the screen, about what you'd expect for a modern film-shot indie movie. The colours are slightly muted and it's not the brightest of films, but this is deliberate and approriate to the tone. Grain is visible but minimal, even in the darker interior scenes, and the black levels are solid throughout.
5.1 surround and stereo 2.0 sound options are available. The 5.1 is a slightly more subtle mix than the stereo, but for the most part this is a monaural experience with the music and a few of teh sound effects spread wider, though rarely with specific intent. Thus a car seen on screen can also be heard at behind you and the drumming in the park stays front and centre no matter what the camera angle, even when the drumming is taking place behind us. This is not a problem,though – low key dramas do not need flashy audio mixes.
McCarthy and Jenkins provide articulate though relaxed information on the film, from set and location issues to the score, character exploration and insight into Jenkins' thoughts in his first lead role.
There is a lot of worthwhile comments made here, but in one example McCarthy makes the interesting point of how things can happen in production due to chance, although academics read into them as conscious choices – referring to the amount of American flags that appear in the film.
A Visit from Director and Cast (55:28)
A huge set of interviews beginning with a detailed 15 minutes with writer/director McCarthy. Richard Jenkins is enthusiastic, frank and interesting, providing informative insight into his role and McCarthy's methods, including info on the climactic guerrilla-shot end sequence in the subway. Haaz Sleiman's interview is intelligent, talking of his character and personal similarities, accuracies of detention centre/detainees and he explains the origins of his drumming in underwear scene. Hiam Abbass discusses her character, directorial motivations etc and finally Danai Gurira speaks of African culture as an African-American and the collaboration with fellow actors and the director/writer.
Drum Piece (7:48)
This is a nice feature about the djambe drumming in The Visitor with interviews and clips from the film.
Behind the Scenes (4:48)
Really a continuation of the interview feature with many clips of the film – not really 'behind the scenes' at all, more an extended promo trailer.
Deleted Scenes (3:21)
A brief extra bit of colouring to the film with commentary by McCarthy and Jenkins .
Actually a relatively good trailer, giving a flavour of the picture's humour as well as its serious themes.
A wonderful independent American movie with as much thought put into the seriousness of its message as the intricate characterisation. I have not encountered Tom McCarthy before, but will certainly keep an eye out for his name in the future! The DVD package is good, and very informative, yet contains the seemingly obligatory filler features without which I would have been easily pleased. I strongly recommend this film to anyone with a social conscious or an appreciation of filmmaking with real heart.