dir: Thomas McCarthy
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Low-key. This film is so low-key that it almost shouldn’t exist. But exist it does, and I found it sweetly enjoyable, far more than most of the films I’ve watched lately and forgotten before the credits have rolled.
Which is odd, quite odd. Because little if anything happens for the whole film’s duration. And instead of using the term ‘low-key’ to describe it, it’s possible that inventing and applying a whole new term to describe such a film might be more appropriate: no-key.
This no-key film begins with an emotionally dead academic played ably by Richard Jenkins, taking piano lessons from a woman. He's not very good at it, and doesn't like the woman teaching him, informing her that though he intends to take more lessons, it won't be with her.
It's only with a bit of time, subtlety, that we figure out what's really going on. His wife, now dead, used to play the piano. Since her death, he tries to keep playing it in order to honour her / remember her, but it doesn't really work. When he speaks to people, he is completely shut down, completely uninterested in those around him, especially when it comes to his work. He teaches one class, and even that's under sufferance.
He lives and teaches in Connecticut, but has an apartment in New York. An enforced conference appearance sees him turn up to his own apartment, at which he's spent very little time at recently.
Problem is, there are some people living in his apartment. A very frightened Senegalese woman, Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), and a very friendly and apologetic young Syrian guy called Tarek (Haaz Slieman). Both, once the reality of the situation is made clear, are deeply apologetic and grab their shit to leave as quickly as humanly possible.
For some reason, a reason that never gets articulated to us or to anyone else for that matter, Walter tells them it's okay to stay until they make other arrangements. Perhaps this is the most interesting thing that's happened to him in years; maybe, despite being shut down and seeming to desperately want to avoid people, maybe he's desperate instead for human contact.
Zainab, to her credit, never lets her guard down with him. We're never given explanation, implication or anything, but we can extrapolate for ourselves. She finds herself, even within the relative safety of her relationship with Tarek, fearful of the vulnerable position her status as an immigrant puts her in, especially since she can be incarcerated or deported at a moment's notice. Some men could have used this fact to their, and certainly not her, advantage.
That's a prime example of how low-key this film is, because a different film would have diverged onto a tangent involving tearful flashbacks and thousand-yard-stares. This flick credits the audience with enough brainpower to figure those kinds of details for themselves. By the same token, despite the flick's subtlety, it's overall agenda is pretty obvious and overt.
Illegal alien, undocumented person, one of the great evil horde trying to jump the queue and besmirch the American Dream with their grubby and non-Anglo hands: there are a bunch of euphemisms and loaded newspeak words for them designed for a singular purpose: to dehumanise people to justify their harsh treatment at the hands of authorities. The Visitor humanises a few of these people, shows the world they live in post 9/11, and lets the viewer decide for themselves, in the same way the protagonist does.
I mean that, technically, you might hate the idea that there are people living in your country who are refugees from wherever for whatever reasons, and you may be opposed to immigration in general and foreigners specifically, but you could still potentially enjoy the film. Of course its point is that the bureaucracy around immigration is callous and inhuman, and that good people can get chewed up and spat out just for not having the right papers, but it doesn't put this point across in a heavy-handed manner.
We don't really grasp why the fate of his visitors becomes of such central importance to him, or why it reawakens him as a person, whether it's through basic human contact, the simple fact of their needing his help, or just through the fact that it's about time. But they do become important to Walter, even despite the fact that there's little he can do to help them when the shit really hits the fan.
With Tarek he gets to share a rekindled love of music, studying the (new to him) rhythms of drumming, which resonate deeper with him than trying to master his wife’s former instrument out of a feeling of obligation. Playing it requires him to let go, literally, of the timing signature of Western music, which is in Tarek’s opinion, always the methodical four-four time, in favour of the three-three time of Middle Eastern rhythms.
It’s pointless to get obsessed with the minutiae of what's being represented here. I'm sure people who hate any examples of multiculturalism see this kind of stuff as exuding anti-American or anti-Anglo Saxon bias, since it seems to prize anything that's Other and minimise the traditional and WASPish. Really, I don't have the time and energy to get into that kind of stuff.
Does this film exist as the visual and dramatic equivalent of those Malaria Zone - Ishka kind of shops that sell crap manufactured in third world countries by third world people for the profits of first world businesses, that give their purchasers a very false feeling of appreciating other cultures just because of their token purchases? Or the urban dwelling World music listener who thinks he or she knows something about what life is like in Senegal or Burkina Faso just because you've downloaded some of their music?
Maybe it does, I don't know. The point of the film isn't that anything from these other cultures, including the people, is inherently better than anything or anyone else. Even if, since the main character is a middle class middle aged 'white' guy, and such arthouse films as these generally have audiences that are middle class and middle aged white people, I don't feel that it invalidates the film's quite low-key points: immigrants regardless of their legal status are people trying to get by in this world, and aren't necessarily all terrorists. And that middle class white people can reconnect with life when their paths cross with other people's, seemingly at random.
The film's points about what life is like for these people in the new post 9/11 America, one which doesn't seem to still embrace the ethos tattooed on the arse of the Statue of Liberty (in perhaps the film's least subtle moments, our protagonist and his young immigrant charges visit Ellis Island, to emphasise what, I wonder?) about poor huddled masses and such. Thankfully they (the film's makers) didn't go so far so as to play Lou Reed singing Dirty Boulevard, with a newly revamped Statue of Liberty intoning "give me your tired, your poor, your hungry, and I'll piss on them".
That would have gone too far. But the more realistic, more relevant, more contemporary approach of showing a bored bureaucracy unwavering in its dedication towards treating all illegal immigrants as threats is far more demoralising. And pretty much what's happening.
But far be it from me to tell the United States how to handle its issues. I'm not, despite having worked as a bureaucrat myself, in any position to lecture anyone here. When you're talking about torture, war crimes, treatment of people in inhuman ways, then my blood certainly boils and I bristle at the injustice of it all. When you talk about people in a country without legal status being deported, then I might feel the requisite sadness for them, but I’m not going to rail at the heavens and cry tears of blood.
Unless they’re people I know, of course, which is the point. Walter connects with Tarek and Zainab, and chooses to care about them, when he has no obligation to. And when one of his charges falls afoul of the new immigration policies, trying to get them out of detention becomes the central point of his life.
Through circumstance, he ends up meeting Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass, a splendid actress who I also saw recently in a superb Palestinian film called The Lemon Tree), and tentatively inches towards connecting with another human being in a way he probably thought was never going to happen for the rest of his life. All I can say is that every scene involving these two characters is golden, pure golden, even her scene where she meets Zainab for the first time, and you can sense her polite disapproval.
Richard Jenkins has received an Oscar nomination for his role here, and it’s much deserved even if you can’t really point to why it’s so good. He’s done good work elsewhere, most recently in my mind in the series Six Feet Under as Nate and Michael’s dead father, but here it’s what he doesn’t do that really nails the character.
Until the ‘big’ emotional scene at the end, Walter spends the first part of the film barely corporeal, and only gradually becomes more real the more he starts living. But even in doing so, it’s not like he’s doing that much. A different actor might have added more to the mix, perhaps too much, but in this instance a decent character becomes like a sculpture in whatever material, where it’s what you cut away that counts.
I could ramble on more about it, but it would simply serve to obscure the film’s merits, and also give a false impression as to how engaging it really is. It is engaging, but it’s heavy pre-loaded to appeal to those who already agree with its various stances, regardless of how subtle or overt they are. No xenophobe is going to have his or her prejudices evaporate into thin moonshine from watching The Visitor: no open arms, cosmopolitan citizen of the world is going to acknowledge that the kind of immigration control depicted in the film is ever warranted or justifiable.
All the same, some people who watch this flick might come to appreciate that it’s the connections between us, the ones that develop spontaneously or over time that mean far more than any policies, rules or traditions meant to protect us from The Others, or ourselves.
8 times I couldn’t at certain points help but think of the Statue of Happiness holding aloft a drink container from GTA IV out of 10
“We are not helpless children!” – yes we are, The Visitor