The Visitor

January 23, 2009 at 4:54 am (Movies and TV)

The Visitor is a surprising movie, and in my opinion, better than at least one of the nominees for Best Picture I’ve seen so far.

Richard Jenkins, a well-recognized character actor, plays  the classic curmudgeon. At least, this is how he is first introduced. Slowly, he is drawn into an unusual situation, and as it unfolds, you find yourself being drawn in as well.

Jenkins received an Oscar nomination earlier today, and I submit that it is well-deserved. This is an actor whose forte has been understatement, so in that sense, this was a terrific part for him; however, here the acting is in his transformation from antisocial introvert to living, feeling example of humanity…and he is brilliant in this progression. We see him dismiss a student with a late paper, we suspect, heartlessly; we wonder at his no-nonsense, nonchalant firing of a piano teacher; then later we see the same person with his zany African drumming and finally, his meltdown in front of an immigration official. I would not have initially guessed so, but, the guy has range.

Cleverly titled, the film’s finish leaves you wondering who the visitor is.  Is it the young immigrants, who are surviving in our country as illegal visitors? Is it Jenkins, who visits his friend of 10 days as faithfully as a relative after apprehension by INS? Is it the young immigrant’s mother, who visits Jenkins to find out what has become of her son, and inadvertently helps him start living his life again? Are we the visitors into this particular story and set of circumstances?

These characters, while typical, are likable. It’s not often that you find yourself caring what happens to all the characters in a movie, but with this one, it’s inevitable. The filmmakers have created people who, while recognizable, you can sympathize with for one reason or another. Maybe you’ve drifted along in life after losing someone. Maybe you make one dumb mistake anyone could have made, which has major consequences later. Maybe you meet someone unexpected who helps bring out your best. Maybe you’re trapped in an uncomfortable conversation with a neighbor. Maybe you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are things that happen to all of us.

One could argue that Jenkins’ character might have easily solved a conundrum by proposing to Mona Khalil, yet he does not. He has grown, certainly, but not so much that he can venture that far out of his comfort zone. We suspect he may have regrets later, though these events have indelibly changed him.

Other films with messages are less subtle…even Wall-E, the animated movie, was really preachy this year. The Visitor does not judge, does not sermonize. What it does is simply tell us a story…these people, in this situation, in this place, in this moment. I really respect a movie that gives its audience enough credit to let us draw our own conclusion.

I wish this film had been in wider release, because I truly enjoyed it. I said in my review of  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that it would receive many Oscar nominations over other, more deserving choices. Perfect example. If Button is overrated, (and I honestly believe it is), then The Visitor is its counterpart, deserving of more appreciation and a wider audience than it has enjoyed.

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