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by M. Faust
I couldn’t tell you when I first became aware of Richard Jenkins. I already recognized him when he got his best-known role, that of the mortician whose death was the opening incident of the HBO series Six Feet Under. He’s one of those supporting actors who seems to have been around forever, never seeming to change from film to film. They’re always good, but seldom good in a way that makes you remember them: Looking at an imdb.com list of the films he’s appeared in since 1974, there are a lot of titles I’ve seen, but few where I can remember the character he played. I see that he was in last fall’s The Kingdom, as “FBI Director James Grace,” which sounds about right—he plays a lot of businessmen and bureaucrats. And the fact that I don’t remember him doesn’t mean he wasn’t good, but that he put himself at the service of the film rather than vice-versa. That’s why they’re called “supporting actors.”
Watch the trailer for "The Visitor"
Actors like Jenkins don’t always graduate to starring roles, either because they don’t get the break or because they just aren’t suited to carrying a film. He has his first starring role in The Visitor, but in a way it’s still a supporting part. It’s certainly a character you can’t imagine being played by a “star.”
Jenkins plays Walter Vale, professor of economics at a Connecticut university. A widower whose only child lives in London, Walter seems to be drifting on the surface of his own life, cutting his class load to a minimum with the excuse of needing time to work on “my book.” Even that one class is one he could teach in his sleep, and from the look of it he probably does.
Forced to attend a conference in Manhattan, he arrives at the apartment he has kept there for 25 years, even though he almost never uses it. This comes as a surprise to the couple who have been living there. It’s not their fault: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician, and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), were given a key to the place by a shifty friend who figured the real owner was unlikely to catch them.
In real life, of course, this situation would lead to a call to the police, or at the very least the removal of the unknowing squatters. But every story is allowed one improbable event to spark it, and Walter, seeing that they have no place else to go, agrees to let them stay for a few days.
What happens next may seem predictable, and probably is, though it doesn’t play that way. Walter and Tarek bond, the younger man bringing some involvement with the world back into the professor’s joyless life. And when Tarek gets into trouble, Walter finds that he can no longer walk away and return to his Connecticut life.
The Visitor was written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, an actor whose first film as a director was The Station Agent, the indie hit of 2003. At the time, I called it “a perfectly scaled first film that makes you hope the filmmaker doesn’t overreach in the future (which is what usually happens).” At this The Visitor doesn’t disappoint. While it might lack some of the quirky humor of its predecessor, it has all of its humanity in a different kind of story about people making surprising connections.
To describe too much of the plot would make it sound like a screed about the oppression of immigrants in the post-911 era. (The Village Voice did just that, calling it the kind of movie that gives liberals a bad name.) You could say that McCarthy has hedged his bet by casting unusually likeable and attractive actors as his immigrant characters. (These also include the Israeli Arab actress Hiam Abbas as Tarek’s mother.) But that would be to say that foreigners are “unattractive,” whatever that could mean. I think McCarthy has something much simpler to say. He grasps that we are all attracted to things that are different, even if we also fear them, and in recent years we have certainly been prodded to fear people who aren’t white and whose first language isn’t English. For whatever reason, Walter makes that leap, and his life is the better for it, just as we are the better for the chance to see his story.
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