Well, the caption to that photo sort of says it all, eh?
I love Richard Jenkins, man. I’ve been on the Jenkins bandwagon for years. I thought he was un-freakin-believable in “Flirting With Disaster,” one of my favorite films of the ’90s. I remember seeing a test screening of the pleasant but unmemorable “Say It Isn’t So,” and the one thing that I couldn’t get enough of was Jenkins. Film after film, on TV, anywhere I’ve seen him, he has been consistently real, able to play loony and laureate, and he’s done it while remaining relatively low-profile.
If “The Visitor” makes Jenkins a national treasure, as he should be, then it’s served its purpose. I think it’s strange how most of the conversation about the film is focused on the single performance, when the film is very much of a piece with Tom McCarthy’s first film, “The Station Agent.” That was a gentle ensemble piece that worked because of the way the relationships unfolded, and so is this one. No suprise his films turn out to be showcases for actors; McCarthy’s an actor himself, a very good character actor who is probably best known for his run as the reporter who makes shit up on the last season of “The Wire.” But you’ve seen a lot of him over the years… he’s just one of those faces who works all the time.
Both of his films are rewarding and heartfelt. “The Visitor” didn’t make my list this year, and I got mail from some of you asking why. It just… didn’t. I enjoyed every minute of the movie, and I think there’s a warm, generous quality to the story it tells. It’s not the racial harmony parable I was afraid it was going to be, but is instead more a look at a man in crisis who finds an unlikely way to focus his sorrow and loneliness. And Jenkins plays this guy with such lived-in authority, such a squashed sadness about him. He’s shut down, intentionally closed to even the random chance of human contact. It’s only when a young Syrian couple is dropped in his path unavoidably that he is forced to really connect to anyone for any reason for the first time in years. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is a young musician who is living with his girlfriend in an apartment they were rented… but it’s a scam, and it turns out to be the apartment that Walter (Jenkins) shared with his wife before she died. He hasn’t been back in a while, and someone knew that, took advantage of it. Tarek and Zainab (Dunai Gurira) have nowhere to go, and they’re not in the country legally, and something in Jenkins recognizes this basic need… and he responds.
And there’s such beauty in the idea that all the drama that follows in this film comes from that one thing… that decision to respond to someone instead of rejecting them… and the way a single thing like that can radically alter the course of your life. It’s not some wild “HOLY! SHIT!” type coincidence that the film builds to; it’s not trying to dazzle you with a twist or a knock-out. It’s just this sort of gradual bloom of a man who had been on the verge of just fading away completely. And McCarthy and his collaborators (Oliver Bokelberg’s photography and the score by Jan Kaczmarek’s score both deserve special praise) manage to capture all of this with a deceptive grace. “The Visitor” is one of those films that goes off like a time bomb, where its charms continue to unfold in hindsight, and I suspect it’s worth a revisit.