Combustible Celluloid
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With: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Marian Seldes, Maggie Moore, Michael Cumpsty, Bill McHenry, Richard Kind, Tzahi Moskovitz, Amir Arison, Neal Lerner
Written by: Thomas McCarthy
Directed by: Thomas McCarthy
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 104
Date: 09/07/2007

The Visitor (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Beat of His Own Drum

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I saw the trailer for The Visitor last spring, it was bad enough to convince me to skip the press screening. But now that I've caught up with the movie on DVD, I'm happy to discover that it's nowhere near as bad as the trailer suggested. As written and directed by Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent), the film dabbles in messages and liberal guilt, but more importantly, it sets up a reasonable and genuine space for a fascinating and heartbreaking character, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins -- a sure Oscar contender).

Walter is a widower and a professor who has been trudging through the same lectures and writing the same books for years. When he's coerced into giving a paper at a New York conference, he unlocks the door to his apartment there and finds two people living in it. Illegal immigrants Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) have apparently been scammed into paying rent on an apartment that was never theirs. Walter feels sorry for them and allows them to stay.

Meanwhile, Tarek begins teaching Walter the drums. (We learn that Walter's late wife taught piano, though Walter never learned how to play.) An odd and touching friendship begins to spring up, until Tarek is suddenly arrested and held in a detention center. That brings Tarek's mother (Hiam Abbass) to town, and introduces a whole new set of emotions for Walter.

Sometimes it doesn't quite feel right that Tarek would dedicate himself to Walter so quickly and fiercely, while Zainab remains more distant and suspicious. But other times it makes perfect sense. When Tarek talks through the detention center visitor's window, his desperation begins to feel more human.

Walter, on the other hand, is a miracle of casting and performance; Jenkins hardly moves in his role, drifting on automatic pilot like a man who lost his soul and forgot where to look for it. He's even passionless when he drinks wine, which is often. But he remembers his manners, and we grow to like him for that.

McCarthy sets up a kind of distant, cautious post-9/11 New York, which helps. The characters slip easily into the rhythms of this world, for better and for worse. Anchor Bay released the 2008 DVD. McCarthy and Jenkins speak on a commentary track, and we get featurettes on drumming ("Playing the Djembe") and on the making of the film, as well as deleted scenes and the aforementioned trailer.

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