A previous version of this article referred incorrectly to a 2004 film starring Hiam Abbass. The film is "Paradise Now," not "Palestine Now."
This 'Visitor' Is Most Welcome
Friday, April 18, 2008; Page C01
You may not know you know Richard Jenkins, but you know him. And most likely, you're a fan.
Jenkins, the 60-year-old star of "The Visitor," has for years served as one of Hollywood's go-to supporting actors, his Everyman looks and deadpan demeanor the perfect fit for playing dads ("Six Feet Under," "Rumor Has It," "North Country"), CEOs ("Fun With Dick and Jane") and sundry feds ("The Kingdom," "Flirting With Disaster"). Here, Jenkins gets a much-deserved shot at leading man, and he delivers a tender, funny, heartbreaking and thoroughly winning performance in the year's first genuine must-see film.
Directed with sensitivity and exquisite tonal control by Tom McCarthy, "The Visitor" opens with a studied air of quietude, as widowed economics professor Walter Vale stands at his window nursing a glass of red wine. In a series of amusing, always flawlessly observed scenes of Walter's life, it becomes immediately clear that he's sleepwalking through it, approaching nearly every moment with a rote sense of duty and boredom. His expression barely changes from torpor to irritation when a colleague asks him to give a paper on Third World development at NYU. Walter reluctantly agrees. Upon arriving at his tidy Manhattan pied-a-terre, he discovers that it has been illegally sublet to Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), undocumented immigrants from Syria and Senegal, respectively.
What ensues is a remarkable friendship and, when Tarek's mother arrives, a budding romance that give Walter's life new rhythm and meaning. At one point Tarek persuades him to learn the African drum and together they join a circle of players in Central Park. Jenkins, the perpetually nonplussed White Guy, never overplays the fish-out-of-water shtick but mines its comic potential with spot-on timing and physical expressiveness.
When the lively humor of "The Visitor" gives way to far more serious matters halfway through the movie, McCarthy deftly handles the shift in tone. As he demonstrated in his 2003 debut, "The Station Agent," McCarthy possesses the sensibility of an American Bergman, conveying volumes about human behavior and connection by way of elegant composition and quiet watchfulness. He possesses an unerring sense of place, whether he's filming in Walter's cramped galley kitchen, the cosmopolitan, polyglot streets of New York or the bleak bureaucratic sinkhole of a post-9/11 detention center. Rather than wordy, expository passages, he allows his characters to express themselves the way people do -- through a tentative gesture, perhaps, or the briefest flustered glance.
What's more, McCarthy has made a political film in the best sense of that term, in that it's unmistakably, even urgently, steeped in its particular time and place, but never resorts to polemic or ham-handed irony. By the time "The Visitor" reaches its wrenching climax, viewers will care about Walter and his new friends, not because they've been led by the nose by a manipulative filmmaker but because he has allowed his characters to grow, change and give into their better angels before our eyes. Walter's transformation is by far the most dramatic: By the end of "The Visitor," he embodies a man with a brand-new interior soundtrack, having plunged into a life he previously only observed from afar, if at all.
If "The Visitor" gives Jenkins an overdue chance to shine, he's ably supported by an accomplished ensemble of players. Sleiman, probably best known for his work on the television series "Oz," brings a contagious sense of expansiveness and warmth to the character of Tarek, and the great Hiam Abbass ("Palestine Now"), as Tarek's wearily beautiful mother, infuses her character -- who has her own prejudices to overcome -- with both sadness and sympathy. Gurira, as the wary, ever-guarded Zainab, makes a smashing debut in a performance that calls for tiny but crucial emotional adjustments.
Indeed, everyone in "The Visitor" undergoes his or her own seismic change, even if those shifts aren't accompanied by melodramatic fireworks or showy moments of truth. The great joy of "The Visitor" lies in its perceptive, deeply personal take on the timeless immigrant narrative, in which the most epic voyage is finally one of self-discovery. Like Jenkins's evocation of that voyage, "The Visitor" is a small masterpiece of beauty, discretion and finely calibrated passion. And like Walter himself, once this particular leg of his journey has ended, viewers will most likely see the world in a new and vibrant way.
The Visitor (103 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row) is rated PG-13 for brief strong profanity.