Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Film Review: The Visitor

In Iron Man, Tony Stark prepares himself for battle against the world’s dark armies by forging an industrial-strength metal suit; the trade-off for his heroic near-invincibility is the forfeiture of his humanity. The Visitor charts an inverted course to heroism: its main character, self-contained economics professor Walter Vale, becomes more heroic as he becomes more human—more vulnerable to the world’s meanness, more awed by its luster. But that’s how these stories have always gone, right? Either you take up the sword and fight like a god or you take a deep breath and die on a cross. Walter’s story lacks the awesome spectacle of sacrifice and the grim satisfaction of material victory—Thomas McCarthy’s script is too grounded to permit these airy, allusive extravagances—but it offers the smaller, subtler pleasure of watching a man learn how to live.

Despite obvious, if unexceptional, success in the respiratory and cardiovascular departments, Walter (Richard Jenkins) hardly registers as sentient; he’s more like a machine adequately programmed. He haltingly performs his rote professorial functions—and even these just barely—and his eyes show neither sympathy nor comprehension when a student explains that his paper is late because of “personal issues.” No matter what you may think of the mettle of today’s college students—and I’m glad that this wasn’t the issue for McCarthy—you would expect at least a flicker of recognition or regret to cross Walter’s eyes. But there’s nothing. Jenkins has a great face for the part: craterous and indifferent, it’s a mask that suggests how far away Walter is from the rest of the world. It isn’t just at school that he feels like an interloper; he putters around his own house, two stories in suburbia, with a stranger’s exaggerated fastidiousness, and plays his grand piano like it’s the control panel for a nuclear reactor. Quiet desperation may not go far enough to describe Walter: try spiritual asphyxiation.

When his colleague Charles requests that he go down to a New York City conference to present a paper of which he is a putative co-author, we can read Walter’s revulsion on his taut lips and in his unqualified refusal: the prospect of visiting the pungent world really is that unsavory. But Charles prevails; Walter resignedly concedes, and drives down to the East Village where he has kept a small apartment for two decades. It turns out that the place hasn’t just been gathering dust: two immigrants, believing that the apartment belonged to someone named Ivan, have been living there for the past several months. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), from Syria, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), from Senegal, have made the place their home, and Walter, after initially throwing them out, relents, and invites them to stay while they look for another place. Tarek and Zainab accept, and then Tarek reciprocates: he invites Walter to re-enter the world. Slowly, through lessons on the djembe, evenings out at jazz clubs, and performances in drum circles, Tarek introduces Walter to the rhythms of an articulated life; he reminds Walter of the sturdy pulse of his own heart, and of the gathering complexity—like the drums’ polyrhythmic patterns—of who he is.

This resuscitation is wonderful to watch but we know that the good times can’t go on indefinitely. One evening, after an ebullient session with a Washington Park drum circle, Tarek is arrested for sneaking through a subway turnstile. We know he didn’t do it, and Walter knows he didn’t do it, but the officers who caught him are determined: from their perspective, he looks like a criminal. Even so, the fear we see in Tarek’s eyes as he is taken into custody seems disproportionate; our system guarantees that an innocent man with a witness can make his case. When Walter returns to the apartment to explain Tarek’s bad luck to Zainab, we learn the reason for his terror: they are both illegals, and Tarek, she confirms, will surely be sent to a detention center. The movie doesn’t exactly pick up speed here, but it acquires something like inertia. The veil removed from his eyes, the carapace of self-pity shed, the name-tag from the academic conference (now almost forgotten) discarded, Walter is ready to act--to defend and free his new friend, no matter the cost. In a beautiful reversal, Charles, the university colleague, calls Walter to ask him where he is; Walter assures him that he will explain everything as soon as he returns to campus. He doesn’t say as much, but we know what he’s talking about: personal issues. Personal issues are not the stuff of pyrotechnic conflict or even extrusive, demonstrative acting, and Jenkins and Sleiman, during Walter’s visits to the windowless detention center, play against each other with terrific restraint and sensitively modulated understatement: if they are strengthened by their certitude about the justice of their case, they are both overwhelmed by a system callously uninterested in things like perspicuity, equal representation, and human dignity.

When Tarek’s mother Mouna (Haim Abbas, with incredible posture and conviction) arrives in town, stricken because she hasn’t heard from her son in almost a week, the movie doesn’t feel overburdened or implausible; it feels necessarily expanded. The film, in a sense, has been building to this encounter: Walter, newly dropped in the current of living, is helpless to stop its onrush. What began as an inexplicable and irrational gesture of hospitality brings Walter into close, even intimate, contact with strangers and awakens his own sense of love and responsibility. One might take issue with the low-burning romance that seems to flare up between Walter and Mouna (Even though it is never, crassly speaking, consummated, its tensions strain our credulity; and why are movies so obsessed with a certain kind of love, anyway?) and with the film’s de facto exoticism of Tarek, whose dignified self-actualization is yet more evidence from Hollywood that the surest path to enlightenment is the one that leads farthest away from the American university system, but there’s no denying the plain power of these relationships. And anyway, the movie doesn’t promise to make things right—it’s too honest for such blandishments—just to help us see things anew.

(The Visitor is at the Avon on Thayer St. through Thursday evening.)

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