Richard Jenkins is one of those character actors you see often, and often take for granted. Whether it's as the gay police detective in Flirting with Disaster or the deceased mortician in HBO's defunct series Six Feet Under, Jenkins is one of Hollywood's most dependable go-to character actors. It's no wonder that he has been a favorite of such notable filmmakers as the Coen brothers, the Farrelly brothers and David O. Russell.
If there is one great thing about indie films -- and, for the record, there are a number of great things about 'em -- it's the opportunity for criminally overlooked thespians of a certain age or look to shine in leading roles. Paul Giamatti had American Splendor, Melissa Leo has Frozen River, and so on. For Jenkins, the plum vehicle is The Visitor, a riveting drama in which he burrows under the skin of a disaffected college professor who is afforded a new lease on life.
Don't roll your eyes just yet. The misanthropic academic type is dangerously close to becoming an indie cliché, true, but writer-director Thomas McCarthy is a master of subtlety and keen observations.
Jenkins portrays Walter Vale, a widowed college professor who long ago settled into a routine of rote solitude. The only change to his class syllabus is the year, which he alters with the help of liquid paper. He protests when the college dean tells him he must present an academic paper at a conference in New York, but Walter reluctantly does so with the certainty that he will soon be back in his Connecticut cocoon.
Walter receives a surprise when he lugs a suitcase into the New York apartment that he has sublet for more than 20 years. A young foreign couple is already living there, the victims of a scam. Grudgingly, Walter allows the couple to stay until they can find other accommodations.
As days pass, Walter warms up to the couple, particularly Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), an open-hearted Syrian djembe drummer who is more than eager to teach the professor how to play the African instrument. Tarek's girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), a jewelry maker from Senegal, is more reserved and skeptical of their older American host.
A crisis suddenly brews when Tarek is arrested at a subway terminal. An illegal immigrant, he is hustled to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Queens. Walter's stay in New York turns indefinite as he works to prevent the young man from being deported to a country he does not know, receiving some help when Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), turns up from her home in Detroit.
The movie wades into the politically charged waters of terrorism and illegal immigration, but it is hardly polemical. McCarthy asks some provocative questions in that arena, but what drives him is the humanity of his characters. Like McCarthy's directorial debut, 2003's The Station Agent, The Visitor explores the dynamics of a makeshift community of people who are desperate to make a connection, even if (as in Walter's case) not all of them even recognize their yearning. The emotionally aloof college professor and the young foreign couple find commonality in their alien status -- one figurative, one literal -- and, certainly in the friendship of Walter and Tarek, the universal power of music.
The Visitor rarely rings a false note. It is a multilayered picture remarkable on several levels, not the least of which is how McCarthy and his players flesh out the intricacies of various relationships. Walter's interactions with the principals -- as well as Tarek with Zainab, and Zainab with Mouna -- are subtle and believable. You sense that these characters are not merely the sketches of a writer, but rather people with quirks and worldviews and temperaments.
As provocative as McCarthy's script and direction are, a great deal of credit must go to his marvelous cast. All the actors are outstanding, but Jenkins is especially superb, and it is his performance around which all the others orbit. Let's hope he is remembered come Oscar time.
If accomplished acting and complex themes sound like indie-film fodder, it should be noted that McCarthy also happens to be a gifted storyteller. The movie is heartbreaking and slyly funny. It dispenses information in deliberate dribbles, excising clunky expository scenes without sacrificing clarity. While McCarthy doesn't shy away from ambiguities, especially in a haunting final image, he also isn't one for narrative fat. Everything in The Visitor is there for a purpose.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, The Visitor boasts a solid picture with crisp details and lines. The only drawback this reviewer noticed was very minor grain in a few dimly lit scenes. A full-frame presentation is also available in case you want to show the movie to your grandparents.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is competent but unremarkable, although the dialogue-driven film doesn't present much opportunity for aggressive sound. Oddly enough, no other language tracks are available (weird for a movie partly about immigrants) and the only subtitles offered are English for the hearing-impaired.
McCarthy and Jenkins engage in a pleasant, low-key commentary, although the actor clearly seems uncomfortable doing this sort of thing. Writer-director McCarthy provides some interesting anecdotes and insights into how he and his collaborators crafted the film's deliberate but absorbing tone.
An Inside Look at The Visitor is standard promotional fare. Four deleted scenes with optional commentary by McCarthy and Jenkins are worth a perfunctory look. Unfortunately, the clips cannot be viewed separately.
Perhaps the most interesting extra, certainly the most offbeat, is Playing the Djembe (7:47). The featurette gives some background on the West African musical instrument and details how The Visitor's actors learned to play. Rounding out the supplemental material is a theatrical trailer.
An outstanding character-driven film that encompasses many ideas but never loses the essential story at its core, The Visitor is further proof that writer-director Todd McCarthy is a major moviemaking talent worth following. The DVD extras are a bit disappointing, but the film more than compensates.