A Late Awakening

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After only his second film as writer/director, Tom McCarthy has earned the right to have the ‘actor’ disclaimer removed from discussions of his behind-the-camera work. That said, it must be noted that his sensitive, theatrically tinged approach to directing has no doubt been shaped by his time spent becoming characters instead of merely writing and directing them into life. In The Visitor, McCarthy explores a theme similar to his debut, The Station Agent, in which a despondent shell of a man is reawakened by an array of unlikely outsiders who enter his world unexpectedly. This time, McCarthy uses the difficult, risky topic of illegal immigration as a plot device, yet he makes sure his film stands, first and foremost, as a humanistic portrait of one man’s personal journey.

The thumbnail description for The Visitor is as maudlin as they come: A lonely, repressed white college professor finds salvation in the form of an illegal Syrian immigrant who teaches him to embrace life by learning how to play an African drum. While that is, in fact, an accurate—albeit greatly generalized—encapsulation of The Visitor, McCarthy’s film never feels like a tacky example of trite liberalism. This is no congratulatory pat on the back. It’s a nuanced representation of culture accord at a time when the world could desperately use it.

McCarthy shakes off the condescending racial implications in his story by using humor and understatement. He appears to be well aware of the thin line he’s treading between political commentary and human drama, and he responds accordingly with interactions that are grounded, plausible, and lighthearted. For some, to use the topic of illegal immigration as a stepping-stone for a personal awakening story about a white American man is unforgivable, but McCarthy is coming from a genuine place. He wants us to find the humanity in a debate that tends to get smothered in ideological pontificating. This approach is to be commended, not criticized.

McCarthy certainly helped his cause by casting the inimitable Richard Jenkins in the role of that lonely, repressed white college professor. Jenkins, who never feels like he’s acting (even in such diverse works as Flirting With Disaster and North Country), finally gets a lead role that showcases his ability to convey several emotions without seeming to do anything at all. In Walter Vale, he makes an expressionless, numb character feel vibrant, conveying Walter’s deep internal struggle with a completely stoic face. Jenkins understands that less is more, yet how he turns that less into more is what makes him watching him such a thrill.

The Visitor is one of those tricky movies that threaten to get dismissed by film elitists as being overly sentimental and simplistic (especially when they become mini-breakout box office hits), but that is what separates McCarthy’s film from superficially similar schmaltzy Sundance fare. For while he takes a non-flashy approach with regards to his screenplay, his cinematography, and his editing, he goes to great lengths to ground his heartwarming story in the realities of day-to-day existence and make it feel natural, not calculated. By the time viewers arrive at the unexpectedly exhilarating final shot, they will hopefully think twice about their own place in this rapidly evolving world.

— Michael Tully

(Visit the film’s official website to watch the trailer.)

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