Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A real dark horse for a Best Actor Oscar

Thomas McCarthy's "The Visitor" is such an unassuming little film that I have to admit it sat in my house for a week before I could summon the desire to watch it, but now I'm certainly glad I did.

McCarthy, who directed the equally satisfying "The Station Agent" in 2003, may also be known to fans of "The Wire" as Scott Templeton, the Sun reporter with a very active imagination. Though that great show went more than a little off the rails in its final season, it was never his fault.

With "The Visitor," he has an able co-conspirator in Richard Jenkins in creating this tale of a man who has pretty much given up on life until he returns to his NYC apartment to find the titular "Visitor" there in the form of an illegal Syrian immigrant (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Jekesai Gurira), though, as it soon becomes clear, Jenkins' Walter Vale is often the real visitor in this world of ours.

Though McCarthy has an occasionally heavy-handed tale to tell about what rights we have given up since 9/11 and the constant peril of living illegally in this country, his movie is much stronger when it just tells the tale of Walter and lets Jenkins jump completely into the role. Partly because of this absorption and partly just because my mind is slowly faltering, I must admit I had to check the closing credits to remember exactly what his name was (though of course we well know his face.)

As we meet Walter, he's a college professor who's been teaching the same one class for 20 years and has now been asked to present a report he only put his name on but no work into. Jenkins captures this detachment perfectly while at the same time moving us to cheer for him without ever becoming manipulative.

And it's a credit to McCarthy's slow-moving but constantly engaging story that he lets Jenkins' Walter be drawn out of his tough shell at a natural pace. Though I'm far too cynical to ever want to participate in anything as hippy-dippy as a drum circle, it's a joy to watch as the Syrian Tarek first teaches Walter to play the African djembe drum and later to even do so in public (and in the most joyous scene, belatedly in life discover the pleasures of Fela Kuti.)

McCarthy lays on the sentiment here but not quite as heavily as in another movie about immigration that's among my favorites from this year, Patricia Riggen's "La Misma Luna" ("Under the Same Moon"). Thanks to uniformly solid performances from his cast, rounded out by Hiam Abbass as Tarek's mother, it never seems anything but genuine and just manages to suck you in.

As for Jenkins, who most people might know from his work on "Six Feet Under" but also appeared this year in "Burn After Reading" as the gym owner who longed for the love of Frances McDormand (and, really, who wouldn't?), he's certainly turned in an Oscar-caliber performance here, but it's probably come in a year too crowded for him to even be nominated. If I had to pick it today, I'd have to guess the final five will be Brad Pitt for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Clint Eastwood for "Gran Torino," Sean Penn for "Milk," Frank Langella for "Frost/Nixon" and Mickey Rourke for "The Wrestler." That final slot could also swing to another outsider, but it's not likely.

But "The Visitor," out now for a while on video, is still well worth checking out, for Jenkins' performance and a whole lot more. And Thomas McCarthy is certainly a director to keep your eyes on. Peace out.

9 comments:

V-Knowledge said...

The Visitor really is a great film; it's one of my favorites this year. Perhaps it should take a nomination or two for its screenplay.

Branden said...

I quite enjoyed "The Visitor". I wish it was stronger about the situation with Tarek and his situation.

Richard Jenkins could come in that 5th slot for Best Actor. He was great in "The Visitor."

Reel Fanatic said...

A screen play nomination would indeed be fantastic, V-Knowledge, and is probably the best chance this one really has at getting any major nods .. There always seems to be an outsider or two in those categories, so here's hoping

The Bloody Munchkin said...

I just heard an interview with Jenkins on Fresh air yesterday, and now I'm dying to see this movie. Glad to hear it got decent reviews from your direction.

Jenkins for Best Actor!

The Bloody Munchkin said...

I just heard an interview with Jenkins on Fresh air yesterday, and now I'm dying to see this movie. Glad to hear it got decent reviews from your direction.

Jenkins for Best Actor!

Vance said...

I'm actually surprised Jenkins hasn't gotten more accolades from the critics awards so far and isn't in the running for the 5th spot as he should be (and in a fair world, his costars should be too, like Haaz Sleiman who was a breath of fresh air).

Reel Fanatic said...

He certainly was at that, Vance ... Given the arcane rules of the Academy, they's probably consider him somehow a supporting actor, which might give him more of a shot if this flick were to catch on like it should

Anonymous said...

Good call!

Great film.

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