Let’s start an Oscar campaign. Richard Jenkins, a great character actor known most recently as the ghost-dad in HBO’s Six Feet Under, gives the best performance of his underrated career, not to mention one of the best so far this year.
As a widowed, down-on-life college professor, Jenkins molds himself into Walter Vale. With remarkable subtlety much in the way of Lost in Translation and Sideways, Jenkins is so engrossingly powerful, that you will undoubtedly forget you are watching an actor.
Sent to a conference at NYU, not too far from the Connecticut school where he teaches his single class, Walter discovers a foreign couple living in his city apartment. They aren’t squatting; they think they are renting legitimately. Soon, Walter asks if they would like to stay with him, causing a completely unselfish change in his life.
Tarek (Haaz Sleiman, beautifully restrained) from Syria and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) from Senegal, allow Walter to wake up and start embracing life. This engrossing transformation is thanks, in part, to Tarek teaching Walter to play an African drum. The Visitor is marvelous at demonstrating the universal power of music.
Written and directed by talented actor Tom McCarthy (if you saw the last season of The Wire, you’ll never forget his factually inept journalist). McCarthy isn’t afraid to detour his film on a completely different path once Tarek is arrested and put in an immigration jail. He also does not shy away from pointing out what he feels are flaws in the American policy and practice of deportation.
The film is hardly a political event, McCarthy rather focuses his attention to the human connections that we can make regardless of voice, race and misunderstanding. Once Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) is introduced, the film hits a new emotional peak. Jenkins and Abbass are perfect together, sustaining each other’s emotions flawlessly.
The Visitor is a small film with one hell of an emotional wallop. Oscar needs to be aware of McCarthy’s poignant screenplay, the three supporting characters, and most notably, Jenkins’ magnificent portrayal of a man finding himself through foreign means.
The final scene of this film is so intense in its execution and subtext that you will not, for the life of you, be able to let is escape you. And believe me, that is a very good thing. A