Monday, June 16, 2008

Unwelcome [The Visitor]

The Visitor [PG-13]
Grade: D
Cast: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass
Director: Tom McCarthy

The Visitor is not a movie. It’s a book.

It’s a book. Made into a movie. For film critics. Who hate movies. And love books.

It has the subtlety and depth of a novella, but not the pulse or juice of a film. It does nothing interesting cinematically whatsoever, which makes you wonder what the point of having a camera is. Writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) simply chose the wrong medium for the story. Unfortunately, you have to pay for the mistake by sacrificing your consciousness.

A subdued economics professor nears retirement. He must attend a conference in New York, where he still owns an apartment he hasn’t seen in years. When he enters, he finds a pair of squatters – a young immigrant couple. He’s a musician, playing African drums. She makes and sells bracelets. After a brief scuffle, he invites the young people to stay in his apartment. He’ll only be there a few days. Soon Tarek, the young Syrian, teaches the professor, William, to play the drums, taking him to park performances in the Big Apple.

The blossoming odd couple act between the sixty-ish white guy and the young immigrant Syrian will get you involved. Then the film does the dumbest thing. It takes the one relationship that’s working and breaks it up halfway through. The Syrian goes to jail on immigration charges, and he takes the story with him.

His mother soon arrives from Detroit. As they fight to keep her son in the country, the repressed widower warms to her. At which point the filmmakers realize that someone might have to kiss someone else. They treat this potential open display of affection like a Pilgrim court. And you. Poor you. By this point you’re praying for God to grant you just one explosion, just one explosion, please!

I will say that the lead performance by Richard Jenkins is interiorized perfection. It keeps the film somewhat watchable. Or at least it keeps you from crawling into a fetal position. But the rest of the film indulges in all of the intelligently unadventurous devices that allow smart people to pat themselves on the back for appreciating. It’s when I watch a film like The Visitor that I wonder if indie people really get this vulgar medium at all.


Craig Kennedy said...

Ouch. I think in many many ways we agree, though by different degrees.

Ultimately, the eye-rolling obviousness of the movie was just barely trumped by the performance of Jenkins and the other 3 leads, plus Jenkins' chemistry with the Syrian guy and his mother.

If only McCarthy had trusted his audience enough to present a moving character study with just a hint of political subtext instead of this lecture.

K. Bowen said...

You know, I was trying to keep enough detachment to avoid going for "ouch." I think my stronger negative feelings overwhelmed it.

I would ratehr had the film keep focus on the relationship between the professor and the young characters. That's what was working in the first half of the movie. Then it dissolves, and I never felt like any of the other relationships that tried to fill the gap had the same passion.

If the film had continued to be about the relationship, slowly evolved into the illegal immigration issue WITHOUT dragging the character off until maybe the end, it might work better.