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The Visitor succeeds on the back of Richard Jenkins. The film soars when he’s on the screen and falters when he’s not. It’s his character and his performance that carry it even as some of the other elements come up short.

I’m a sucker for understated performances that display a lot without really emoting much. Think Ulrich Muhe in The Lives of Others or Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men or even In the Valley of Elah. Jenkins falls into this category even though his character, Walter, is a bit more than a complete blank slate. But he’s the ultimate bland guy, an economics professor no less, who finds himself widowed, alone, and bored but doesn’t even care enough to be restless. I loved watching Walter loosen and open up.

The white guy rediscovering life via exotic ethnic character plot is a bit cliched at this point and The Visitor does not really break any new ground on that front. In fact, the plot plays out fairly formulaically, complete with a drum circle where the white guy busts loose. But again the success of the film can be traced right back to Jenkins and the character of Walter. Everything about Walter simply works. His actions, from the smallest reaction to the grandest gesture, are believable and not overplayed. I found myself enthralled and smiling whenever Walter was around.

The non-Jenkins, non-Walter parts of the film are a mixed bag, however. I wasn’t a fan of the other actors, including Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira as the immigrant couple Tarek and Zainab who have taken up residence in Walter’s apartment. Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother also didn’t do much for me, though I could accept that what I thought was stilted line delivery may have been an authentic Syrian accent and way of speaking. The characters, especially the mom, are not as well-developed to make us understand them.

There’s a good film to be made about our country’s absurd immigration policy, but this isn’t it. The movie is infinitely more interesting when it’s about Walter’s emergence and the immigration plot provides conventional conflict that may not be necessary. It also tries to be socially important without totally succeeding. From my understanding it gets the facts right, which helps it become a much better indictment of the system and bureaucracy than of policy. This is after all a dysfunctional, incompetently-administered system that treats illegal immigrants – civil detainees – worse than common criminals that throws any semblance of justice or humanity out the window. This is a topic that deserves full-blown cinematic treatment to really explore it instead of the sort of half-try it gets here.

I’ll be rooting whole-heartedly for Jenkins to pick up a Best Actor nomination. It worries me that he might get lost in the shuffle in a year with a lot of big names in the category. Not only would it be nice for a veteran character actor like him to snag some recognition for himself but it really is one of the finest performances of the year. Writer/director Thomas McCarthy picked up a Writers Guild nod for Original Screenplay, which could well translate into Oscar success. That would be fine, even if only for the writing of all parts of the Walter character.

And you know what? It was nice to see an economist on film, even if his occupation is one of the reasons Walter finds his life in a rut. Three of the four of us met while working at an economic consulting firm and let me tell you, the life of a professional economist is as soul-crushing as portrayed. But so many occupations repeatedly get the on-screen treatment it’s nice that it’s our turn.

And it comes with all the traps of film versions of a profession! Cops and lawyers complain that the movies always get it wrong and The Visitor presents us with a pretty lame example of an economics conference. If an economist showed up to a conference, as Walter did, and someone said in their presentation said, “We find under these circumstances financial globalization can be beneficial. Impreically, it’s good institutions and quality of government that will allow third world countries to benefit and harbor the fruits of globalization,” they’d wonder if they accidentally ended up in an introductory course. Thanks for dragging me to a conference to tell me something completely elementary, poindexter.

(For extra reading, here’s a really great article about a prison in a Rhode Island town and the immigrants living inside and outside its walls.)

January 2009
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