As an actor, Tom McCarthy has been very much a supporting and bit player. As a filmmaker, he has knack for elevating other gifted supporting actors into lead roles that make the most of their overlooked talents.
With 2003’s “The Station Agent,” it was Peter Dinklage. With “The Visitor,” writer-director McCarthy presents Richard Jenkins in a rare starring role that’s a perfect fit for the veteran character actor’s mix of surface composure and inner agitation.
Once you’ve seen Jenkins inhabit the sad, compassionate, lonesome yet longing academic at the center of the story, it’s impossible to imagine McCarthy making the film without him.
More expansive than “The Station Agent,” which was essentially a study of three very isolated people, “The Visitor” offers equally rich and full-blooded characters while taking on — not altogether successfully — broad and current themes of immigration and xenophobia in post-9/11 America.
The title could apply to all four key characters, each of them literally or figuratively having left one life to search for another.
Jenkins’ Walter Vale is a 62-year-old widower who has been teaching the same economics course at a Connecticut college for 20 years. He has published three books, is idly dabbling at a fourth and is so enervated by the humdrum repetition of things that he cannot even motivate himself to prepare a new syllabus for the one course he’s teaching.
He has tried and failed to fill the void by studying classical piano. Against his will, Walter is dispatched to attend a globalization conference in New York City, where he still has an apartment he and his late wife once lived in.
To his shock, Walter finds Syrian immigrant Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) living in his apartment, thinking they had legitimately rented it (turns out their “landlord” was a con artist who knew the place was unoccupied).
Whether out of kindness or desperate loneliness, Walter allows Tarek and Zainab to remain for a day or two, which quickly lengthens to an indefinite stay as an odd bond forms among them.
Walter’s tedious days at the economics conference are juxtaposed with energetic outings in the company of Tarek, who plays the African djembe drum in a jazz club and at informal drum circles at a park.
Before long, Walter is joining in, and while he’s a raw, hesitant beginner on the drum, it evokes more spirit and passion in him than his awkward piano lessons.
The music and atmosphere are vibrant, infectious to the point where you wish you could join in yourself.
In the country illegally, Tarek winds up pinched by the police and held at a crowded detention center while awaiting deportation, with Walter his steadfast ally on the outside.
Eventually, Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), shows up from Michigan wondering why she hasn’t heard from him. A touching, if overly convenient, relationship stirs between Walter and Mouna, though McCarthy applies great restraint to prevent it from turning to sentimental mush.
As with “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” leaves you uncertain over the characters’ futures. McCarthy makes them your friends, and you want to know what happens to them, you hope that they’ll be all right.
The story gets heavy-handed in its indictment of the cold, impersonal bureaucracy behind U.S. immigration policy, but McCarthy thankfully avoids preaching too much, keeping the focus on his characters.
Best-known as the dead dad who haunts his family in “Six Feet Under,” Jenkins forms easy and instant bonds with his co-stars, who each offer stirring glimpses into the troubles of immigrants in a country suspicious of anyone different.
But Walter is as much a visitor, a man so out of step with the seemingly successful life he leads that he confesses he’s pretending to work, pretending to be busy, but doesn’t actually do anything.
By the end, it’s unclear whether or not Walter is busy doing anything. But at least he’s not pretending anymore.