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    The Visitor

    Drum and drummer

    With "The Visitor," actor-turned-director Tom McCarthy proves that his previous film, "The Station Agent," was no fluke.


    Like his previous film, the warm and wonderful "The Station Agent," Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor" is a little film with a huge heart. In fact, the two movies have a lot more in common than you might initially expect.

    Written and directed by: Tom McCarthy.
    Cast: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Marian Seldes, Maggie Moore.
    Cinematography: Oliver Bokelberg.
    Edited by: Tom McArdle.
    Music by: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek.

    Related links: Official site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
    Both introduce a lonely man of few words who travels to a different part of the country only to be surprised by his new neighbors, a culturally and ethnically diverse gaggle of individuals with whom he winds up forming an unlikely friendship. Both feature a remarkably strong lead performance coupled with some beautifully drawn supporting roles. And both deliver a screenplay ripe with nuance, wit, and poignancy in which nothing is over done and people think, feel, and act like real people.

    In short, first with "The Station Agent" and now with "The Visitor," actor-turned-director McCarthy has quickly proven himself a master of the delicately observed social drama via profound yet unfussy photoplays that embrace the differences in all of us.

    Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is not a dwarf with an unchecked passion for trains but a Connecticut college professor who's asked by his department chair to present a paper at a conference in New York City. Richard is shocked to discover not an overly friendly Cuban-American lunch truck proprietor and a melancholy artist with poor driving skills living in his Manhattan apartment but a young immigrant couple, Syrian Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) from Senegal. Naturally enough, Walter's first impulse is to ask them to leave but he changes his mind when it's clear they have no place else to go. In so doing the economics professor opens the door to his own unanticipated education.

    The Visitor  
    Then, when Tarek is arrested and threatened with deportation, Walter is obligated to readdress his priorities.

    The visitor of the title is ambiguous, of course. It could refer to Walter, visiting Manhattan from the boonies, or to the illegal Tarek (or Zanaib). But it could also refer to Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) who, having not heard from her son in five days, shows up unexpectedly from Michigan to see what's what. She, too, winds up staying at Walter's apartment while he selflessly hires a lawyer to handle Tarek's case.

    There's a depth to Jenkins's performance that's not flashy, just heartfelt. Sleiman too is highly personable and especially effective during his character's incarceration scenes in a holding facility in Queens. And Abbass brings both a maturity and grace to the project. At this year's Sundance Film Festival McCarthy mentioned that he wrote "The Visitor"'s screenplay with both Jenkins and Abbass in mind. Perhaps he was struck by, among other things, the former's supporting turn in "North Country," in which he played Charlize Theron's bigoted father (I was). There's a wonderful moment in "The Visitor" in which Walter, still mourning the death of his wife, confesses to Mouna that he's not really as busy as she might think, or as he lets on.

    It's moments like those, and McCarthy's sublime faith in random acts of human kindness, that make this "'Visitor" worth accommodating.

    MAY 21, 2008

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