The Visitor

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The Visitor

Release Date: April 11
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Writer: Thomas McCarthy
Cinematographer: Oliver Bokelberg
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass
Studio/Run time: Overture Films, 103 mins.

Part of what made Thomas McCarthy’s first film, The Station Agent, so enjoyable was that McCarthy had such affection for his characters that he was perfectly content to put them together and watch them behave. The same is true of his warm and humorous new film, but to his credit, the stakes are significantly higher this time. Simply keeping his characters together without vilifying anyone is an achievement that pays ample dividends in The Visitor.

Character actor Richard Jenkins, a face you’ll recognize immediately even if you don’t know the name, plays Walter, an economics professor and widower who seems disinterested in his academic work and bored by his solitary life. Maybe he’ll learn to play the piano or spend more time in New York City, but to reveal where the story goes robs it of some of its beauty; it’s about a late bloomer, good people working through difficult problems, finding people you love, and immigration. The plot turns may be slightly over-telegraphed and designed to provoke certain emotional responses (a repeated refrain of “he didn’t do anything wrong” juts a bit awkwardly into the movie’s final act), but the film is also remarkably rich for such a straightforward tale. As a small example of what McCarthy is doing, we discover that Walter’s late wife was a pianist, which makes his desire to play the piano wonderfully ambiguous. Is he seeking something new or trying to reconnect with something lost? He may not know himself, but when his interest serendipitously turns from the piano to the drum, McCarthy seems to offer a window into Walter’s soul.

The most recent film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is called The Child (L’Enfant), and every scene seems to ask us to think about which character is the child. There are several possibilities, and the answer keeps changing. Like a title by the Dardennes, The Visitor shifts its object from scene to scene, and McCarthy’s sensitivity to class and culture is worthy of the same Belgian masters. The beautifully restrained performance by Jenkins is the anchor of a film built around complex characters and quiet moments. And it’s no wonder: McCarthy knows a thing or two about being a character actor in part because he is one, most recently playing reporter Scott Templeton in HBO’s The Wire.

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