The Visitor: naturalism wins the day

In theaters now is writer/director Tom McCarthy’s very fine second feature, The Visitor. The film tells the story of Walter Vale, an aging economics professor and lonely widower who we see shuffling dully through his days, disengaged from his teaching, his research, and apparently everything else in his life. When he returns to his rarely-visited New York apartment for a conference, he finds it occupied by an illegal immigrant couple, who he decides not to turn away. After some initial awkwardness and discomfort, he befriends them both, and especially Tarek, who comes from Syria and plays the djembe. Walter begins taking djembe lessons from Tarek, and starts to re-connect with music, New York City, and his life. He even meets Tarek’s mother, Mouna, a widow herself, and takes her to a Broadway musical.

This sounds like a very naive (and perhaps even insulting) premise—old white guy gets a new lease on life through his encounters with a vibrant non-whites. The difference here is that McCarthy treats all of these characters—rather than just Walter—as living, breathing human beings. Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna don’t exist in the world of the film only to show Professor Vale how to live a better life. They all have their own lives too—before, during, and after the time they spend with him.

Even more importantly, McCarthy stages the interactions between these characters in an extremely naturalistic style. Though The Visitor is often funny, it never strains at a punchline, but instead lets the humor come entirely naturally through the characters and the actors’ fine performances. And McCarthy recognizes that there’s plenty of action and interest in his story without adding extraneous elements for effect. When Walter and Mouna find themselves thrown together for several days, McCarthy doesn’t have them instantly (and very improbably) fall in love with each other; nor does he create any kind of artificial conflict between them. Instead, we see two reserved and self-contained people slowly opening up to one other, awkwardly and imperfectly. Together they end up sharing fleeting moments of both joy and despair, and their emotions and reactions seem entirely believable because nothing we see on screen is external to their personalities or to the situations that they find themselves in.

For all its naturalism and careful attention to matters of character, The Visitor is also an overtly political film. And in McCarthy’s hands, the political message goes down just as smoothly as everything else, because he treats it with the same degree of honesty and naturalism. The movie’s politics are inherent in the structure of its story, and in the very lives of its characters, and so nothing ever comes off as didactic, forced, or preachy.

McCarthy’s first feature, The Station Agent, is also remarkable, and for somewhat similar reasons. Its premise seems even less likely to succeed: it’s the story of a reclusive dwarf who finds his peace and privacy besieged by a couple of quirky small-town characters. But again, McCarthy takes all of his characters seriously as people, and by maintaining a highly naturalistic style throughout, he resists all impulses toward cuteness or sentimentality. Despite its improbable premise, <em>The Station Agent</em> is a subtly effective and genuinely moving film, and never descends into gimmickry. There’s no need, because the writing, performances, and direction are all first-rate.


2 Responses to “The Visitor: naturalism wins the day”

  1. 1 Geoff April 26, 2008 at 10:58 AM

    I do think there were some borderline preachy moments in the movie, like Jenkins’ breakdown at the detention center or the ironic closeup/fadeout on the American flag towards the end of the movie. That being said, I loved the movie (maybe because I’m in the choir he’s preaching to). I would add, as an immigration lawyer, that I thought the movie was pretty accurate in its portrayal of the detention and removal process for somebody in Tarek’s situation. Even the detention center in Queens very closely resembled the former Wackenhut detention center near JFK, which I visited a number of times in the 90s. The movie was also dead-on as to other scary aspects of detention and removal, like the possibility of being suddenly moved to another facility or of being suddenly deported in the middle of the night. If anything, the movie depicted a rosier version of detention than what is actually the case in some parts of the country–while Tarek mentioned having a room with the ceiling cut out for recreation, some Chicago-area facilities don’t even have this much; there is no access to sunlight whatsoever for detainees who sometimes spend (as Tarek correctly noted) years in detention fighting their cases. Moreover, some Chicago area facilities don’t even have the visitation via a transparent barrier that the movie depicted; people who travel hours to see their family member can only visit via videoconference. I’m grateful to The Visitor for closely depicting the terrifying process of removal and the emotional fallout for those left behind.

  2. 2 goodreadings April 29, 2008 at 9:03 AM

    Yeah, you’re right about the flag bit–that seemed a bit much. I’d already noticed the flag earlier in the scene, before the close-up, and thought it was a bit much even then. But I thought the emotion in Jenkins’ breakdown came off as real, which for me made any preachiness tolerable.

    From what I’ve read, McCarthy did a lot of research for this film, and actually ended up getting involved in trying to help detainees himself. J.R. Jones writes about this in the Chicago Reader:

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