The first thirty-five or forty minutes or so of Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor is just sublime. It is measured. It reveals itself gradually. It is anchored by a sad and beautiful performance by Richard Jenkins. It’s leisurely. It doesn’t try too hard to be about anything.
If the second half of the film is a bit too relentlessly expository and tries a bit too hard to rise to a level of social and political significance, well…the first half of the film was still sublime. The second half doesn’t ruin the film, exactly, but it does slow its momentum, which is, I realize, an odd thing to say about a film that I was complementing for being so leisurely.
When the film is primarily a character study, than the leisurely pace allows us to observe Martin (Jenkins), and the pace gives us an opportunity to observe the layers of his personality. When the camera reverse zooms and we see not just Martin and his new friend, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), but the New York skyline sans Twin Towers I immediately said, “uh-oh.” And it didn’t take long for the film to announce that it wasn’t just going to be about the difficulty of people connecting to one another but about people connecting to one another in a post-9/11 world. In case we didn’t get it, there is a mural of the towers at the detention center where Tarek ends up, the deportation lawyer talks about how things have changed in a post-9/11 world, and we generally feel with a sense of rising dread that what has begun as a great film will end as a rote civics lesson.
For all that, though, the film does keep providing genuine moments of human contact, mostly provided by Jenkins’s ability to inhabit rather than merely perform. There is a moment when he brings a letter to Tarek who asks him to put it up against the glass so he can read it. Jenkins holds the letter at arm’s length and then turns his head away to give his friend some modicum of privacy in a place that has none. It is a moment that is instinctive, not actorly, one that the film doesn’t draw our attention to but which is typical of the way the film keeps us grounded in people rather than situations.
Reading back over this, it sounds harsher towards the film than I feel, perhaps because the disappointment one feels at a near miss is proportionate to the level of expectations created. And it isn’t even as though I disagreed with the political sentiments. I’m just saying I was more interested in Martin’s attempts to learn the drums than I was in his education into the vagaries of our legal system. So, yes, it misfires, but when it is working, it is so wistful and engaging and true we end up just being happy to spend some times with these characters that we are willing to follow them into the land of conventional melodrama just to see how they inhabit it.