Political films aim to pierce heart and mythology

by Beacon Staff • April 16, 2008

The Visitor, writer-director Thomas McCarthy's second film, contains two hackneyed storylines in one movie. It is the story of the uptight white guy who loosens up-and learns to love life-after befriending a minority, as well as the tale of two lonely souls who connect after the disappearance of a mutual loved one. With the exception of one strong supporting performance, The Visitor is a soppy, liberal-guilt-ridden bore that fails to break out of its tired genre conventions.

Richard Jenkins (of HBO's "Six Feet Under") stars as Walter Vale, a depressed and stuffy economics professor at a school in Connecticut. On a trip to New York City to attend a conference, he returns to the apartment he rents, but has left unattended for years, to find two strangers living inside.

The couple, a woman from Senegal named Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) and her Syrian boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), insist they will leave as soon as possible, but Walter lets them stay until they can find a new place. This becomes difficult, as the pair have been relying on shady characters and illegal backchannels for a place to live. It's clear that they are hiding something.

A friendship develops between Walter and Tarek, who teaches the professor how to play the African drum. It turns out the grumpy old prof has some rhythm, and the two are soon playing in drum circles in Central Park on Walter's lunch breaks from the conference.

On the way back from one of these sessions, Tarek is nabbed by the NYPD for allegedly jumping a subway turnstile-a possible jab at the "broken window" theory of policing in Giuliani and Bloomberg-era New York, and one of the more subtle of many political points made in the film. He is discovered to be in the US illegally and is detained in Queens. Because he is Syrian, he is seen as a possible terrorist threat.

With one minority discarded, the film immediately introduces another: Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass). She and Walter team up to try to get Tarek out of detention. A romance develops between the two, leaving the audience to wonder if they shouldn't be worrying about Tarek getting waterboarded rather than going to Broadway plays.

But then, none of the romance angle makes much sense. The script offers nothing to suggest why Mouna, played with beauty and grace by Abbass, would fall for Walter, who is played by Jenkins as a stone-faced schlub. Throughout most of the film, Walter is unlikable and dull. It's easy to understand why Tarek likes him: he lets him stay in the apartment. What's Mouna's excuse, though? After Walter snaps at her over dinner for bringing up the subject of his unfinished book, you wish she'd pick up his glass of red wine and dump it right over his bald head.

Walter isn't sympathetic in moments like these because he is a blank slate-only passing hints are provided to inform his motivations. Jenkins brings nothing interesting to the caricature he has to work with and, ultimately, he's still a bored and boring lead character.

The director doesn't pick up the slack, either. At one point, Walter is driving and he sees a banner on the highway that reads, "Support our troops-bring them home," but the camera doesn't cut back to see his reaction. Maybe it's because he didn't have one.

The banner is one of many political references in the film, and as with so many post-9/11 works, the majority of the references are clumsy. In the subway station where Tarek is arrested, the camera focuses on a painted mural of the Lower Manhattan skyline, complete with the Twin Towers. At another point, we see a giant American flag, which abruptly blurs until it is totally out of focus.

McCarthy's views on immigration are about as complex as Congressman Tom Tancredo's were when he was a GOP candidate for president. At least Tancredo's speeches had some occasional humor.

Whether or not Tarek makes it out of detention-the question that provides the suspense in the story-is almost irrelevant. Tarek's faith in America has already been shattered by the experience-he appears shocked at what has happened to him. But it is rather incredible to believe that this Syrian illegal immigrant never suspected that he might be arrested and detained.

"Can you believe this happens in America?" is the implicit question posed by McCarthy with The Visitor. In constantly hitting the audience over the head with ironically-intended Americana imagery, as if to remind them that the US is no longer the land of the free, McCarthy forgets his more important duty as a writer and director. He forgets to provide an original and compelling story with characters we care about.