Jenkins Jives

Running Time 103 minutes
Written and
directed by Tom McCarthy
Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Hiam Abbass

One film worth time and attention but without a big budget to announce its arrival in full-page ads is actor-turned-writer-director Tom McCarthy’s moving, humane and life-affirming new film The Visitor. This honorable and thought-provoking follow-up to Mr. McCarthy’s highly and deservedly well-received debut feature, The Station Agent, is that rare low-budget film that is really about something more than self-indulgence. There is nothing mediocre about it, and a great deal that will make you think and feel and, yes, care about the world you live in.

No stars here to lend glamour and marquee value, but the central force is Richard Jenkins, best known as the funeral director patriarch in that great HBO series Six Feet Under, who pumps up the volume admirably. He plays 62-year-old Walter Vale, a bored and disillusioned Connecticut economics professor whose life since the death of his wife and companion of many years has lost its zip. Implacable, stern, set in his ways, he spends most of his time in solitude, studying piano from a kind teacher (Marian Seldes) who knows it’s a skill for which her pupil has no aptitude. One night he returns to the New York apartment he almost never uses, and finds it occupied by two black intruders—Tarek, a musician from Syria (Haaz Sleiman), and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Daina Guerira), who are victims of a bad real estate scam. First he’s fearful, then furious, but when Walter realizes the needy strangers are now homeless, he discovers in himself enough compassion to let them stay on for a few days. In appreciation, the husband gives his host free drum lessons, and the wife’s culinary skills introduce delicious new spices to his palate. As the days stretch into weeks, the shy, uptight, anal-retentive stuffed shirt finds hidden reserves of curiosity and fun he didn’t know he had. Then he gets a rude awakening to the fates that await the lives of the disadvantaged. When the poor boy is arrested for one of the million absurd charges New York cops come up with daily and turned over to the immigration authorities, Walter finds a cause. He visits the grim detention center for illegal immigrants where the terrified Tarek is held; extends his hospitality to include the boy’s mother, who arrives from Damascus; and frees the soulful spirit he’s held hostage inside by falling for the beautiful new member of his household. Before it ends, Walter is a stranger to his own friends and colleagues: eating strange cuisine, playing bongos in the subway, fighting to save his new friends from deportation and becoming an activist for the rights democracy now denies visitors who have committed no crimes. The film does not end with its problems neatly resolved, its loose ends tied in festive bows or its broken hearts easily mended. But while it opens our eyes to the plight of those who are falsely detained without counsel for as long as the U.S. government sees fit, without hope of release, it also teaches us that the unhappiest people can change and improve by opening their hearts and minds to new ideas.

Director McCarthy has a special affinity for fresh, unusual characters who are drawn together despite their differences in age, cultural background, education and personality, and in Walter he (and the wonderful Richard Jenkins) creates the kind of viable man we all know and some of us have become. The tragedy of the “visitors” expands his horizons and gives him impetus, focus and reasons to live outside his own skin. A marvelous film, small in expense but big in stature.