Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Film Review: The Visitor, starring Richard Jenkins

Professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) has become a visitor in his own home and all of its aspects--the apartment he used to share in New York City with his late wife, his life, and his own country.

An instructor at Connecticut College, Walter has a diminished course load--teaching only one class--to focus on finishing a book, which he hasn’t worked on seriously since the death of his wife, a classical pianist. Walter’s existence lurches onward, passively and without passion.

With a character as detached and emotionless as Walter, The Visitor struggles to grab attention in the first quarter of an hour, but a series of sequences (ones that show Walter getting annoyed with a piano instructor, becoming irritated with a student turning in a paper late [although Walter is yet to distribute the syllabus for his class], and eating alone in the campus dining hall) reveals that something’s a bit off kilter with this stoic man.

His life is unoccupied by anything of value--friends, colleagues, or meaningful work.

The chair of his department approaches Walter to present a paper that he co-authored at a conference in NYC because the other author has been put on bed rest until she delivers her child. Peeved, Walter embarks to the city, which precipitates the rest of the film, as he discovers Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) living in his old apartment.

From here, The Visitor chronicles the rapid growth of Walter’s friendship with Tarek and Zainab, and contrasting shots in the beginning and end of the film--most notably Walter’s observation of a vase on the table--hint at the changes in Tarek’s and Zainab’s situation and Walter’s dreary life.

But the film is a parable, as well, of how paranoia and fear destroy the lives of innocents, and the hustle and bustle of our daily life--work, errands, travel, friendships--is a thin veil, easily yanked away even by the smallest of random happenstances. And yet, those of us who, by an accident of birth, have American citizenship remain unaware of the machinations of our country, of the great unfairness that’s structured into our political system. A detention center in NYC--which looks like little more than a whitewashed cinderblock gym--builds anxiety throughout The Visitor: The center is nondescript to naturalized Americans, terrifying to immigrants, and--to those who work in the building--nothing but a job, with detainees being migrated from one chamber to another through a chain of electric, sliding doors.

It is in encountering the costs of being emotionless, the price of passivity, that Walter unites with Tarek and Zainab; he alters his life when sudden challenges befall the young couple. The circumstances instill in Walter a vivacity that he has not experienced for years, and The Visitor leaves the viewer with an admonition, that we should not be idle in our own lives and that--regardless of laws and governments and borders--every innocent, good person deserves a life dedicated to pursuing happiness.


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