Bang the drum slowly
A sad, aging man resurrects his spirit and learns to bang the drum fiercely in The Visitor, an acting showcase for Richard Jenkins that gives this treasured, usually supporting actor a true moment to shine. Jenkins has appeared in a lot of movies. He’s one of those actors most people know by his face but probably wouldn’t remember by name. That’s liable to change after this film makes the rounds.
Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a professor at a Connecticut college who has seen happier times. Walter has lost interest in teaching, is dreadfully antisocial and generally morose. He spends night at home alone, listening to music, drinking wine and cooking for himself. He tries to play the piano, but it’s proving to be a futile endeavor. Through slow reveals, we find out he’s a widower, contributing to his temporary loss of interest in life.
Much to his dismay, he is forced to attend a conference at New York University to present a paper he had little to do with, yet it has his name on it. Upon reaching New York and returning to an apartment he keeps in the city, he finds a woman in his bathtub. That woman is Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), who has been living in the apartment with her boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman). The two are illegal immigrants, tricked into paying somebody else’s rent, somebody who doesn’t have anything to do with the apartment. After a scary confrontation, the couple realizes the mistake, asks forgiveness and gathers their things to leave.
Walter can basically see the people are kindhearted victims of circumstance, so he allows them to stay at the apartment with him while they seek a new place to live. In the course of living together, Walter befriends Tarek, a jazz musician who begins teaching him how to drum. They visit jazz clubs and ultimately wind up in a public drum circle. Through Tarek’s friendship, Walter starts to come out of his shell.
Director and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy could’ve kept his film in this pleasant mode, but he throws a major wrench into the works when Tarek is arrested in the NYC subway after a misunderstanding. The film then shifts to political drama as Tarek fights deportation inside a callous detention center. His mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), shows up after her calls aren’t returned, and Walter has another new person in his life.
McCarthy has made a very honest movie where happy endings aren’t a certainty. He tries to do a lot with The Visitor, with political drama, intense character study and even romance, succeeding on many levels. While his screenplay is stuffed with situations and dilemmas, he manages to bring them to satisfactory (at least cinematically) conclusions.
Jenkins is simply a marvel. At first, Walter requires him to be very somber, even jaded, at first as he lives an isolationist lifestyle. As the story progresses, and Walter’s heart starts to fire up again, Jenkins allows Walter to lighten up, albeit slowly and realistically. It’s fair to say that his performance hits not one false note and qualifies as one of the year’s best so far.
He’s in good company. Abbass is radiant as Mouna, a Syrian immigrant quietly worried about her son’s fate. Sleiman is equally good as Tarek, a well-meaning man whose joy for life has obscured his ability to examine certain details of immigration law. Gurira’s portrayal of Zainab is stunning. She and McCarthy tell us little about her background, but we can see in her eyes that past life experiences have made her very pensive around new people.
It would be nice if, during the summer film season, we could have a movie like this every week to counter the bombast. McCarthy has made a movie that totally engages. The summer movies have been fun so far, so don’t take this as a complaint about the big movies. It’s just nice having something like this to calm things down and get you thinking again.