Let's hear it for the character actor. Long laboring in the shadows of sexy mega-stars and Hollywood icons, they are unsung artists who often fashion flesh-and-blood characters out of whole cloth. And Richard Jenkins is one of the best. Mostly known as Nate's dead father in Six Feet Under, the 60-year-old thespian has effortlessly jumped from genre to genre, creating a string of memorable supporting roles along the way. From his uptight gay FBI agent in Flirting With Disaster to assorted appearances in Coen Brothers flicks, he's the ultimate "Oh, that guy" actor.
Which makes his starring turn in Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor all the sweeter. As Walter Vale, a numbed-to-the-world economics professor who hasn't quite recovered from the death of his wife, Jenkins brings unpredictable honesty and emotion to a storyline that's, well, mostly predictable. When Walter is sent to speak at a global economics conference in New York City, he returns to his long-neglected apartment only to find it occupied by "illegals" — Syrian Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) — who're victims of a real estate con. Sympathetic to their plight, Walter offers them shelter until they find another place and a quiet friendship develops. Tarek, a musician, teaches Walter to play the drums and slowly the widower's depression begins to melt.
But The Visitor throws us an emotional curveball when Tarek is arrested and locked away in a detention center in Queens. Though he's lived in the United States since he was a child, deportation is imminent, which brings Tarek's mother Mouna (the enchanting Hiam Abbass) to New York in hopes of freeing him.
McCarthy's loopy but moving debut, The Station Agent, heralded the arrival of an astute, patient director who articulated the friction between solitude and friendship. He understands how the small things matter, the thoughts, reactions and gestures of his characters. Here he brings the same poignancy and artfulness to the complexities of a post-9/11 world: Just as Walter begins to reconnect with humanity, our country closes itself off.
Though it's usually clear where The Visitor is headed, it still surprises you with small revelations and unexpected choices. McCarthy is astute enough to understand that complex performances can make or break a "people" movie, and in Jenkins he's found a pro. The actor's every word and gesture is authentic. Walter answers questions here with merely a look and we intuitively know the answer, because we know the man. It's the kind of restrained performance that proves great writing doesn't necessarily mean great dialogue.
Which, to be honest, isn't the director's strong point. While the emotional terrain is carefully and sensitively constructed, some of his exchanges cross into cliché. At one point Tarek actually says, "I only want to play my music, Walter. Is that so wrong?"
The supporting cast is similarly excellent. Though Sleiman's Tarek is the happiest Syrian in the world, he convincingly captures the worry, anger and fear his detention brings. In contrast, Gurira's wary iciness is so believably honest that when she finally cracks a joke on a ferry ride with Walter and Mouna, the warmth of moment is well-earned. And Abbass is one of those exquisite middle-aged actresses you can't take your eyes off. At first, she mirrors Jenkin's muted emotions, but over time a proud but weary character emerges, and, as with everyone else in the film, unanticipated motives surface.
Though its title may seem ambiguously generic, The Visitor asks this: Who really belongs? McCarthy has a political point of view but he never preaches or sentimentalizes. Instead, he takes very real people and addresses the disillusionment, dislocation and insularity of modern American culture and suggests that finding your place has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the way people connect.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].