Shyness, Unfairness and The Visitor

Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Josh Bolotsky

The emotional impact of Thomas McCarthy's new film, The Visitor, does not emanate from the fact it is set in post-9/11 New York City. The story, that of a graying economics professor who makes fast friends with a Syrian immigrant, only to have the latter detained and potentially deported to his home country without so much as a hearing, could easily have been set, with a few adjustments here and there, in Soviet Russia, or a theocratic banana republic, and it'd still be equally heartbreaking. But it's not set somewhere else, and the fact it doesn't spend too much time harping on that particular "this shouldn't be happening here" trump card, but instead largely allows the audience to recognize and stew silently in that irony - there's maybe one shot that lasts too long of an American flag, a glance at the Statue of Liberty that's perhaps a touch too ironic - is what makes The Visitor such an effective advocate for human dignity, and the best film of the year thus far.

The economics professor is Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a lecturer at Connecticut College who, in his early 60s, is already a ghost of a man, ambling slowly to the one class he's consistently taught for the last twenty years, a bloodlessly basic Principles of Economics course. When we meet him at the beginning of the film, he talks in clipped sentences, communicating with the minimum words required to be grammatically correct, as if each word elicited its own unique quantum of pain. He maintains eye contact only when necessary. There are periodic references to an earlier, fuller life - a concert pianist wife who passed away years ago, perhaps a normal family life - but how he got to his current state is never fully explained. (Even though we spend virtually the entire film in Vale's presence, it is only once, an hour into the film, that he briefly mentions that he has a son living in London.) This is someone who knows that he has a certain allotment of life he is condemned to complete, and is hoping to get through it with at little further self-extension as possible - so when a departmental obligation requires him to travel to New York University to present a paper at a conference on globalization, he hems and haws at the invitation, doing what he can to get out of it. But the sentence is iron-clad, and he finds himself driving to his long-empty Manhattan apartment.

Only the apartment is not alone - an unscrupulous landlord has pawned it off as abandoned to the couple Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), a musician originally from Syria, and his girlfriend, a Senegalese artist named Zainab (Daina Gurira), who have been living in the apartment on their own. Unable to witness them leaving the apartment into a big apple where they have nowhere to stay, Walter, in the first act of kindness we see him offer in the film, offers them the ability to stay until they find a more permanent housing solution. Tarek and Walter bond over music, with the former's African drum serving as a sort of universal language between them.

And it is here while The Visitor really begins to shine, in the quiet, clever ways it details the ripening of a friendship. This is not, obviously new material, and the pitfalls for flagrant (and offensive) cliche here are obvious - an uptight white man learns to live life a little more openly and loudly with the help of an unerringly positive friend of color, you say? One who seems more at ease with his physical presence? Why, that sounds positively uplifting!

But it works, not just because of the stellar performances by Jenkins and Sleiman (more on that later), but because McCarthy foresees and corrects for the most obvious problem - turning Tarek and Zainab into "magical negroes" without real personalities, who exist primarily as inspiring foils for our white protagonists. Instead, these are genuine characters, with genuine flaws - Tarek's propensity to dismiss suggestions that everything will not be alright, Zainab's inability to trust in the goodness of people. And when we see that friendship develop, one notices that, unlike so many films, there's never one scene where Vale "decides" to open up a little more - it just happens gradually, his willingness to talk about himself becoming less forced and more free-flowing. (But even then, not that free-flowing - there is no magical transformation, and by the end of the film, he is still essentially a quiet man, albeit a quiet man with a few more outlets for his inner pathos.)

And then, disaster strikes - a few days into Vale's visit, Tarek is taken into custody by police in a subway station, and taken in for questioning, a questioning that turns into detention, a detention that turns into a potential deportation. Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), leaves her Michigan household to visit the apartment, worried that she hasn't had her calls returned for the past five days. I won't say much more, for risk of spoiling the unspeakably dark and wonderful surprises of the second half, except that the film is primarily concerned from this point on with joint sufferings as they deal with the legal wrangling of a system that feels intentionally kafkaesque, trying to prevent Tarek's deportation on specious charges.

I will say this, though: "it's not fair!" becomes a sort of refrain in the film, a sort of security blanket for minds that're otherwise unable to process the sheer enormity of what they're facing. Like song lyrics, its credibility lies primarily in its delivery, and the delivery with which Jenkins imbues this line gives us more than enough credibility. Jenkins has long been one of my favorite character actors, particularly in the David O. Rusell films like Flirting With Disaster and I Heart Huckabees. However, finally given the lead role in a film, a development that would launch some actors into clearly-milking-it scene-chewing hysteria, Jenkins instead delivers a heartbreaking performance, entirely convincing as a shy man who realizes that his shyness, for once, may not cut it.

If I've given the impression the film is all dourness and thunderstorms, I apologize - The Visitor, for all of the misfortune it displays, is a story about the courage it takes to step outside of a holding pattern in your life. McCarthy's film is not just a plea for us to stand up to injustice, but to enjoy life for those who can not do so as a result of injustice. When The Visitor was over, I left the screening room in midtown Manhattan to find that the sky was overcast, rendering the whole afternoon an industrial gray. I walked uptown a few blocks, wondering who among the people I walked past and never spoke to could have been friends in another life. I wondered why everyone's face seemed to look so harried and strange. I made a mental note to look up and learn more about immigration policy and immigrant rights. And I called my mother.

Both the first shot and the last shot of the film show Jenkins approaching a musical instrument. In the first shot, he has his back to us in the privacy of his home, merely contemplating the piano in front of him, the instrument of his wife, alone. In the last shot, he has his newly acquired African drum splayed out in front of him, playing his heart out in one of the most public places imaginable, the platform bench of a busy New York City subway station, an action that would've been unimaginable to him a mere week earlier. The Visitor is about a man who realizes the unfairness in his own life, the unfairness that he uses to justify his own sadness and cruelty, is not the only unfairness worth ruminating over. That alone makes it one of the most important films for progressives in a long time.