Friday, 11 July 2008

[34] The Visitor (dir. Thomas McCarthy, 2007)

Thomas McCarthy's follow up to 2003's indie hit The Station Agent is both an intense character study and an attempt at socio-political commentary.

Walter Vale, an economics professor (played by Richard Jenkins), is introduced as being disenchanted, and stares out of his campus office window, dispassionately reusing old course documentation and avoiding as much work as possible (he says he's working on a book, which never materialises). This short opening is effective in solidifying the audience's focus, on character. Before long, he is sent from his Connecticut base to New York, in order to present a paper (which he barely co-authored) at a conference. On entering his New York apartment, he finds that it has been rented to two young illegal immigrants during his time away. Walter decides to give the young couple a place to stay. In turn, Tarek and Zainab (relative newcomers Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira) slowly reconnect the dejected widower with a zest for life. This is especially true of the former, whose calling as an afrobeat jazz percussionist exposes Walter to the music of Fela Kuti, and, through djembe lessons, gives the older man confidence in expression.

McCarthy gracefully paces the film along with Walter's slow emotional rehabilitation. He is the film's core, but the supporting cast are strong and well-drawn. As he opens up, so does the narrative, which becomes anchored in socio-political concerns involving Tarek being arrested and held in a detention facility, facing deportation. The scenes depicting the process of arrest, detainment and deportation throw up a lot of thematics about post-9/11 America, and its treatment of immigration or foreign matters. However, this hard-hitting commentary is paralleled by Walter's brief romance with Tarek's mother (Hiam Abbas), again stressing the humanistic concerns amongst the political statements.

Indeed, the socio-political dimensions of this film can perhaps give way to accusations of exoticism (Walter gives up learning the piano, and embraces African music), naivety, liberal guilt-tripping or melodrama. However, the solid roots in character and performance give the film's soapbox turn an emotional depth and empathy. This elevates The Visitor above many of the similarly-angled films of late, which focus on borders, ignorance and race (such as Babel). McCarthy has managed to craft a memorable, thought-provoking gem.

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