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Human Traffic

Richard Jenkins' Performance Grounds An Otherwise Meandering Message Movie


BAGGAGE: Richard Jenkins (Left) and Haaz Sleiman Meet Cute (Sorta).

By Evan Guilfoyle | Posted 4/23/2008

Thomas McCarthy's tender The Visitor isn't sure what kind of movie it wants to be. It features character actor Richard Jenkins in a starring role as widowed college professor Walter Vale, who befriends two undocumented squatters living in his unused Manhattan apartment. McCarthy is better known to The Wire fans as the duplicitous reporter who spun yarns about serial killers in Season 5; Jenkins is best known as the dead dad from Six Feet Under. In McCarthy's movie, Jenkins' pocked skin and hangdog features are writ large in closeup for the majority of the running time--which is not a bad thing. Jenkins delivers an understated, delicate performance that infuses The Visitor with a genuine empathy for the untenable political situation that is America's post-Sept. 11 immigration policy, but the situations and signifiers in which McCarthy envelopes Jenkins' performance make the movie somewhat of a slog.

For instance, McCarthy shows Walter, alone and aloof, going through the motions of a life half lived. The movie opens on the professor receiving a piano lesson from an elderly woman, who critiques his technique. She explains that fingers should be curled like a subway tunnel to "allow the train to come through." Her condescending tone results in him dismissing her afterward. In Walter's Connecticut university office, a pasty student attempts to turn in an overdue paper to no avail. And when a colleague can't present a paper Walter co-authored at a conference in New York, Walter begrudgingly agrees to attend on her behalf--but not before admitting that he didn't really co-author it. He merely read it and attached his name to help his fellow professor.

Walter enters his Manhattan apartment to find an African woman bathing in his tub and is immediately confronted by her Syrian boyfriend. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) quickly explain that a man rented them the apartment, under false pretenses, and they agree to leave. How they believed a furnished two-bedroom sublet walk-up in Manhattan was affordable on their meager means is beyond the scope of McCarthy's screenplay. Walter realizes they have nowhere to go and allows them to stay in one of the bedrooms while he is in the city. In this simple act of opening his home to the young couple, Walter's heart grows 10 sizes that night. The Visitor, too, grows in leaps and bounds after the introduction of the human element of globalization.

As Tarek and Walter's relationship grows closer, Zainab's standoffishness becomes more and more pronounced. This facilely suggests that Arabs and Americans could get along if only they could talk about music and not discuss politics. The shrinking distance between the men evaporates after they play in a drum circle together in Central Park, where Walter is the only white guy. The tentativeness with which he played the piano is nonexistent as he bangs away on the drum, and with it Jenkins's performance exudes life and joy for the first time.

Naturally, this being an independent movie, his happiness is short-lived. On their return to the subway, Tarek's drum gets stuck in the turnstile and NYPD's finest demonstrate swift justice when it comes to quality-of-life crimes. With Tarek in a detention center, and Zainab unable to see him due to her own dubious immigration status, Walter pays an immigration lawyer to help Tarek obtain political asylum.

Tarek's mother, Mouna (played by radiant Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass), arrives from Michigan after not hearing from her son for days. With her arrival, The Visitor makes its final transition into an august romance between two widowers, with Mouna's son's deportation always lurking in the background.

McCarthy's debut was 2003's New Jersey-based, Super 16 mm-shot indie The Station Agent, and The Visitor marks an upgrade with its superb use of New York locations and the 35-mm format. The transformation of Walter's character from stuffy self-absorbed paper presenter to a drum circle-attending, African bracelet-wearing angry neo-liberal is, overall, an interesting and satisfying character study. McCarthy, however, wasn't satisfied with achieving that admirable goal. He squeezes in lateral asides to the Twin Towers, immigrant poster propaganda, and Hurricane Katrina but fails to name the president whose policies make people into bar-code numbers. The Visitor posits itself somewhere between a study of a lonely man, an ensemble drama, and a subtle message movie dependent on the scene. In today's complex world, that may not sound too bad. But by the final shot--Walter banging his drum in the subway alone--it's hard to know what to feel.

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