The Visitor ***1/2
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
I must saw, the Toronto Film Festival has played a massive trick on me. I was slated to see "The Visitor" last Monday morning, but sadly I woke up too late and missed the screening. For the next five days I heard nothing but praise about how this was one of the best films of the festival, and everyday as I shifted through the schedule magazine, I kept seeing the picture from the film-a lovely shot of Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass laughing at a cafe. I recall that scene in the film, but that laughter certainly wasn't there. I was actually surprised how heavy and how much of a message this film carried-I went in expecting a light comedy, and ended up getting something more. It was a pleasant surprise, but a jarring one.
Richard Jenkins has always been a terrific actor, but he always ended up getting such small roles in so many films-memorable work include "Intolerable Cruelty." Then he was able to show more range and he did a great job in the so-so "North Country," and of course his work on 'Six Feet Under," where his acting personality would change depending on which character would see him. Now he gets a starring role in this small, but lovely, little movie, and its been worth the wait. Jenkins plays Walter, a lonely and widowed college professor who is taking time off to write a book. When he is forced to attend a conference in New York, where he owns an apartment, he is shocked to find a couple already living there. Walter makes friends with Tarek, and Tarek even begins to show him how to play the drum. When Tarek gets picked up by immigration after a misunderstanding on the subway lines (Broadway Layfette actually-I've been there scores of times!), the once distant Walter gets closer and closer to this family, especially when Tarek's mother Mouna arrives.
Jenkins is just so good here, and that drama that he showed in "North Country" continues here. There is a great scene where he just finally hits the last straw and yells at everyone around him, and its just such good work. I was surprised by the strong anti-war messages, and the "we are all the same-we're all human beings" moral, just because this film went in a direction that I wasn't expecting at all. But this goes further than your typical anti-war film, and becomes a film more about human emotion and the evolution of character. Walter is a man who reveals himself to us slowly-we learn little bits about his past which make sense of the present. And Thomas McCarthy-an actor, who directed the wonderful "The Station Agent"-wrote such a good and true script. It's funny how this was his follow up to "The Station Agent"-both films are about a loner who ends up meeting people that love life, and this just changes this and introduces them to different concepts. "The Visitor" has been picked up, and hopefully we could get Jenkins some acclaim.
I go back to the title-something that could mean many things. And my perception on who the visitor was changed constantly. It could be Jenkins-visiting New York and finding these people that have made their own home. It could be Tarek, who is visiting this country for a better life. It could be Mourna, who changes Walter's life with her visit. Or it could be all of them, each other having a visit that effects each others lives. Or I could be a fool. . .