capsule film review: the visitor

Thomas McCarthy, actor an now screenwriter/director, is one to watch. While I’ve not seen The Station Agent, his debut feature, his sophomore effort The Visitor is the kind of indie film that quietly sneaks up on the bigger Hollywood fare to deliver a dramatic wallop. It’s good to see the film get some recognition in the form of Richard Jenkins’ Oscar nomination for Best Leading Actor, although I think a screenwriting nod would have been appreciate. McCarthy takes a familiar conceit – a lifeless, listless man finding a new spark for life – but does two things that make it authentic.

First, he avoids theatrics and sentimentality, trusting instead in the deceptively simple story. Without taking it to the full monty, The Visitor involves friendship, romance. and gentle, non-judgmental social commentary in what is best described as a richly layered character piece. Second, he knows enough not to overwrite his scenes, leaving room for the actors to perform beyond the dialogue. I’m thinking of Richard Jenkins sitting at the piano under the watchful eye of a skeptical teacher, half-heartedly tapping the keys in a ritual invocation of memory, then coming alive as he learns to drum the djembe under the tutelage of Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian immigrant whose illegal status will come to cause problems. McCarthy doesn’t have to tell us that Vale is coming back to life; he lets Jenkins show it to us. I’m also thinking of Danai Gurira as Tarek’s girlfriend Zainab, a Senegalese woman who is also in the US illegally, begins as frosty, haughty woman, but gradually warms up. The whole ensemble, really, is beautiful, and McCarthy’s unobtrusive direction yields a handsome film.

The Visitor is a writer’s movie, but also an actor’s movie, which ultimately makes it the viewer’s movie.

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