Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Visitor, a film review

About a year ago I saw The Visitor and found it moving. But as is so often the case, it's easy to miss some things in a first viewing, and the significance of the opening scene was lost on me the first time I saw this carefully crafted story.

Richard Jenkins has been perfectly cast as Walter Vale, a disaffected college professor who for the past two decades has been drifting through life. Now that he is a widower, the string of meaningless days is more empty than ever. Fortunately, he has a personal quality that will lead him out of his inner darkness. He is open to new experiences.

As the film begins, Walter is taking a piano lesson. It's clear that he and the piano teacher are not connecting. And it comes as no surprise when he tells her at the door that this will be his last lesson with her. She replies, gently, that he really doesn't have an aptitude for it. She also asks if she can purchase the piano if he ever gives up on it.

This opening sequence is quite telling. First, we learn that Walter is trying something new, and even if he is not good at it, there is an emerging something that wants to be released. He's failed now with four piano teachers, but has not given up. Second, the director Thomas McCarthy knows how to economically tell a lot of story with very few brushstrokes. This approach is executed with great effectiveness throughout. It is a fascinating story, well told. And it's not a film about a guy learning the piano. It's a film about a man who is beginning to wake up, a man who begins to notice things that are going on around him.

I believe this is Richard Jenkins' first performance in a lead role and he's just the man for the job. But all four of the main characters give flawless performances.

The real story begins when Jenkins returns to his New York City apartment and discovers there are people living there in his space. Both the couple and Jenkins are shocked, and you wonder what is going to happen next. By allowing the situation to continue, Jenkins learns a little more about the world outside his walls. The couple are both illegal immigrants, Talek a jazz musician from Syria and Zanaib a street vendor from Senegal, each doing what they can to make a way for themselves in this complicated world.

Tarik's widowed mother Mouna, played by a Hiam Abbas with textured perfection, enters the story later, bringing still more dimensions to Walter Vale's expanding world.

Rather than spoil it for you, I will not detail the complications that occur. All I can say is that the film's ending is to some extent like an O Henry surprise, but very satisfying when you reflect on how it got there. It's the story of Walter Vale's awakening.

Reading people's responses to a film, book or news story can sometimes be nearly as interesting as the story that triggered such wild varieties of response. Imdb.com is always filled with lively commentary and insightful anecdotes. For example, the year this film premiered at Sundance it received a standing ovation. One writer stated that this was one of those rare films that you don't want to end.

Another wrote:
It would be easy to pigeon-hole this film as a topical drama dealing with an uncaring government system. But this film transcends all that. Instead it is a heartfelt film about what happens when people -- with all their desires and difficulties -- bump into one another to express the best part of their humanity.

But I have to add that despite the many 9 and 10 star reviews, there were some who also hated it. One wrote, "I have never seen such a good rating for such an awful movie." Maybe that person was expecting more special effects? The story may have been a bit too nuanced for someone who grew up on video games.

My opinion: The Visitor is both entertaining and thought-provoking, with endearing characters and a takeaway that is deeply satisfying. Check it out.

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