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Visitor, The

Starz / Anchor Bay // PG-13 // October 7, 2008
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 17, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is
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listlessly limping through the waning years of his life. This tenured economics professor keeps a nearly non-existent course load yet continues to recycle the same stale syllabus he's tossed around year in and year out, is terse to the point of being unapproachably rude, and keeps himself at arm's length from everyone and everything. The only connection he's tried to foster in years is through a parade of piano teachers -- part of a failed attempt at keeping the memory of his long since departed wife alive.

It's through a very different instrument that Walter reconnects with the world outside, though. He's shuffled off to New York to present a paper he didn't actually write at an economics conference, and when he strolls into an old apartment he hadn't stepped foot inside in ages, he finds two immigrants holed up inside. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) aren't the squatters they look to be at first glance, and after some polite but uncomfortable shuffling around on both sides, Walter invites them to stay with him while they seek out a new home. Zainab is leery about Walter, but the unwaveringly cheerful Tarek warms to him instantly. The two of them bond over Tarek's djembe, and for the first time in years, a smile once again creeps across Walter's face. Even feeling impulsive enough to join in on a drum circle, Walter feels as if he's part of something again. That rekindled spark is snuffed out when a misunderstanding sends Tarek into a detention center for illegal immigrants, and the faceless bureaucracy holding him captive seems impenetrable despite Walter's most impassioned efforts.

Don't cynically shrug The Visitor off as preaching about a hot button topic, though. The movie certainly leans in that direction, if only briefly, but much like writer/director Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent, this is a film that's ultimately about kindness...about friendships...about people with seemingly little in common forming some sort of unlikely connection.

As familiar as the skeleton of its plot may sound, The Visitor veers
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far away from any established formula. McCarthy doesn't try to personify the bureaucracy through some needlessly cruel, moustache-twirling badnik. The system is unassailable -- it can't be reasoned with, it has neither the need nor the inclination to explain itself, and it casts a wide enough shadow that whatever it engulfs may arbitrarily be shuffled a thousand miles away without warning. Tarek doesn't face deportation for anything he's done; he's just caught in the arm of a machine, and something so sprawling, detached, and nebulous makes for a fascinating adversary. The Visitor is also much too respectful of its audience to settle for a teary-eyed climax in a courtroom drenched in syrupy strings. Its finale veers away from convention in favor of something more quietly intense and sincere; written, directed, and performed with such confidence in the dynamics of storytelling, The Visitor knows that a frenzied peak carries the greatest impact when surrounded by unassuming stretches of silence.

McCarthy and Jenkins masterfully weave together Walter's personality and backstory throughout The Visitor's first act. Rather than lean on rushed narration or heavy-handed exposition, Walter is pieced together in fragments that gradually take a greater shape. Jenkins is such an immediately engaging presence that Walter is compelling before we even know who he is. It's no small feat to make a character so wholly disinterested in everyone and everything this compelling, and watching his lagging passion once again sputter back to life is infectious. The film's supporting cast may not have nearly the sprawling filmography that Jenkins does, but their performances are every bit as memorable, with relative newcomer Haaz Sleiman's turn as Tarek standing out as particularly confident and accomplished. I'm also impressed by how deftly music is integrated into the story -- relating the connection between a man and an instrument to people in general, the way music can bridge the distant past and the promise of tomorrow, and how a spark of creativity can reinvigorate someone trapped by disinterest, cold numbers, and routine. The Visitor is a wonderful character study about rekindled hope and the unlikely connections that make life worthwhile, and it's a rewarding discovery on Blu-ray.

Video: Despite the slight
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misprint on its packaging, this Blu-ray disc presents The Visitor at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the 1080p video has been compressed with AVC. The Visitor may boast an understated visual style, but the film still translates beautifully to high definition. The film's palette is predominately somber and overcast, but these colors defrost in much the same way that Walter himself does, particularly in a drum circle bathed in sunlight and surrounded by lush, green foliage. Crispness and clarity vary somewhat -- shadow detail can be fairly fuzzy, especially in more dimly-lit interiors -- but I frequently found myself startled by just how sharp and richly detailed The Visitor could be. Facial textures and intricate patterns in clothing stand out in particular. The faintly grainy texture of the film is preserved nicely on Blu-ray, the source material shows no trace of damage or wear, and the disc is free of any compression artifacts or authoring hiccups.

Audio: The Visitor boasts a 24-bit, six-channel PCM soundtrack. The sound design isn't terribly aggressive -- this is, after all, a dialogue-driven film that frequently takes place in quiet interiors -- but when the film calls for it, the front-heavy mix spreads out comfortably into each of the channels at its fingertips. The rears are much more pronounced whenever The Visitor steps out into the bustling streets of New York, and the drum circle and Walter's first listen to one of Tarek's favorite CDs also take advantage of the multichannel setup. For a film so heavily anchored around percussion -- especially a drum as full-bodied as the djembe -- bass response is rather light. Even the roar of the subway barely coaxes much of a rumble from the subwoofer. It's not an adventurous mix, no, but the film's dialogue is reproduced cleanly and clearly, and some care clearly went into fleshing out color in the surround channels. The Visitor's uncompressed audio is uneventful but fine.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack has also been included alongside subtitle streams in English (SDH) and Spanish.

Extras: The Visitor is disappointingly
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lean on extras, although this Blu-ray disc is headed by a rather nice audio commentary with director Tom McCarthy and actor Richard Jenkins. Despite all the empty cans of Diet Dr Pepper scattered around the recording booth, this isn't an especially hypercaffeinated discussion; lengthy stretches of silence frequently pass between comments, and McCarthy even pokes fun at how Jenkins quietly watches the movie for nearly the entire length of the commentary. It's dialed down, yes, but this commentary is quietly funny and completely unpretentious. McCarthy focuses much more intensely on the making of The Visitor than any underlying themes or messages, and some of the highlights include quips aimed at Richard Kind and the clunky posture of cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg, shooting so much of the film in an impossibly tight apartment, how unsettlingly accurate The Visitor's reproduction of a cold, clinical detention center is, and noting that despite the numerous flags draped across the many locations throughout the movie, not a single one had been strung up by the production staff. It's smart and sharply witty, although the fact that it is so subdued leaves it better suited to playing in the background. The commentary is still worth going to the extra effort to find; for whatever reason, Anchor Bay opted to bury the track under the 'Setup' menu rather than grouping it with the other extras, making it rather easy to overlook.

McCarthy and Jenkins also offer optional commentary over a handful of short deleted scenes. It's additional color -- pleasant but inessential -- including Walter meeting one of Tarek's friends and another scene with an awkward neighbor played by Richard Kind. The reel runs just shy of three and a half minutes in total.

"An Inside Look at The Visitor" (5 min.) is a straightahead promotional piece, and like most EPKs, all this featurette really does is recap the plot in between lengthy excerpts from the movie. There are a few cursory comments about the characters, but there's not much insight for anyone who's already watched the movie from start to finish. The disc's other featurette is "Playing the Djembe" (8 min.), which opens by noting the dominance of this drum in West African music before delving into the instrument's influence on the writing of the screenplay, how McCarthy and two of his actors learned to play it, and noting how Haaz Sleiman mastered the drum well enough to keep up ably with two seasoned jazz musicians.

Also included is The Visitor's theatrical trailer, and it, like all of the extras on this disc, is presented in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen.

Conclusion: Thoughtful, heartfelt, and brilliantly understated, The Visitor shrugs off familiar conventions in favor of a simple story about a long-dimmed spark of life rekindled by unlikely bonds. While its low-key soundtrack and lean set of extras may be underwhelming, the honesty and deceptive simplicity of the story, the strength of its performances, and a wonderful high definition presentation make this sophomore effort by writer/director Tom McCarthy a worthy discovery on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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