Eugene Weekly : Movies : 5.15.08


The Odd Couples
A story about the most unlikely relationships

THE VISITOR: Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy. Cinematography, Oliver Bokelberg. Music, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira and Hiam Abbass. Overture Films, 2008. PG-13. 103 minutes.

I can’t think of an American actor who hides his work better than Richard Jenkins. Not his technique, which Jenkins masks to great effect, but his work: Despite having appeared in more than 75 films, among them I Heart Huckabees, North Country and Hannah and her Sisters, the versatile Jenkins will forever be remembered as Nathaniel Fisher Sr., the highly cynical — and highly dead — patriarch of Six Feet Under. Despite being killed in the very first episode, Jenkins haunted the HBO series, bringing his doused spirit, his rock-bottom outlook, to every scene in which he appeared. Talk about your quintessential character actor: His crowning achievement is a dead guy too fidgety to stay dead.

The Visitor should raise Jenkins’s profile considerably. In the film, Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a man so depressed over the loss of his wife that he scarcely realizes how detached he’s become. We meet Walter during his piano lesson; shortly afterward, in a terrific porch scene, Walter fires his capable teacher, upon which she levels him with the most graceful raking imaginable. An economics professor, Walter is slipping away at work; when his department chair insists he attend a conference at NYU, Walter — who maintains an apartment in Manhattan — can barely contain his panic, muttering unconvincingly about the many demands on his time. It’s clearly a charade, so Walter trudges to New York, only to find a pair of unexpected houseguests in his residence: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira).

Realizing that the couple has nowhere else to go, Walter allows them to stay in his apartment, an act of courage that Tarek repays by giving him an African drum lesson. Over the course of a few days, the men develop a musical friendship, even if Walter is the only person in the city who cannot see that Tarek and Zainab are aliens of the illegal variety. After Tarek, a Syrian, is arrested unjustly, Walter, formerly a man without qualities, discovers his purpose and reawakens, even if that purpose involves prying Tarek from the clandestine U.S. government. At this point, the real achievement of writer/director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent) becomes clear: The Visitor is so small, so human in its fears and disappointments, that by comparison, films like Rendition look not only ineffective but irresponsible, giving us pretty faces but no real feeling for the truth, which of course is one small heartbreak after another.

The Visitor evolves still further with the arrival of Tarek’s mother Mouna, played with great patience and dignity by the stunning Hiam Abbass (Munich). Slowly, carefully, she and Walter become allies, then friends and then something more complex still. Tarek begins to recede from the picture, as does Zainab. In Tarek’s case, this is understandable and necessary, since he’s being swallowed by U.S immigration service. In Zainab’s case I felt strangely resigned to her departure, given that The Visitor, in a rare misstep, doesn’t reveal enough of her relationship with Tarek. This gap struck me as an oversight, given the bridges, both cultural and spiritual, the two must have crossed to be together.

Otherwise, despite being oddly lit and at times haphazardly photographed, The Visitor rarely falters. Director McCarthy has given us a film every bit as powerful as his excellent Station Agent, this time examining the rhythms of coupling and the politics of survival. Jenkins gives a career-defining performance. When Walter’s confession finally comes — he’s a lousy professor — it’s a stirring declaration, and his final tirade against the stunned immigrations officers is, quite simply, indelible.

The Visitor is now playing at the Bijou.