The Visitor
directed by Tom McCarthy
Overture Films

Tom McCarthy’s two absorbing and original films, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008), both sensitively sketched character studies, ask the audience to connect with their protagonists—not by identifying with them, but by empathizing with them in their human encounters. To achieve these effects, McCarthy, an auteur, uses none of the conventional cinematic strategies: no postmodern manipulation of the narrative, no flashbacks, dissolves, or camera panning to the side to juxtapose past and present. There is never even a voice-over, the standard device for adding psychological dimension to cinematic depiction. Instead McCarthy offers a cinema of technical restraint and psychological compassion.

The protagonists, the lonely dwarf of The Station Agent and the stagnating economics professor of The Visitor, are not heroic. Each man’s character unfolds before the camera in a linear narrative, and that unfolding, which reaches no certain conclusion, is the plot, the emotional force, and, if you will permit, the meaning of McCarthy’s films—the arc of the moral adventure of a life. We are shown a series of chapters, episodes in which a person who is beginning to freeze in the cage of his character ventures through the bars in search of others.

If McCarthy is not easily grouped with other contemporary filmmakers (perhaps Eric Rohmer?), his approach is reminiscent of Chekhov. Not Chekhov the playwright, but Chekhov the short-story writer whose work Vladimir Nabokov proclaimed to be “above all Russian fiction on the level of Gogol and Tolstoy.” Nabokov’s Chekhov writes stories in brief “movements,” “with the unexpected little turns and the lightness of the touches” that McCarthy achieves in his films. Mainstream critics agree that, though The Visitor is predictable, these nuances make the film intriguing. And McCarthy has still more in common with Chekhov. Chekhov’s stories, Nabokov said, were “funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, because both were linked up.” McCarthy has that same sense of humor; it is everywhere in his two films. Moreover, he shares Chekhov’s compassionate psychological understanding.

Chekhov’s short stories were written before Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective ground the lenses that shaped our cultural perspective on personality. Freud’s “science” taught us to see the child in the adult, character as the history of experience, and mental life as a constant struggle with the dynamic forces of the unconscious. Chekhov’s psychology was grounded in life’s immediate experiences, in an unblinking recognition of human vices and virtues, and an embracing compassion for humanity as we all struggle to find a place in the world. Chekhov, in writing as well as life, was a legend in his own time for his benevolence. Tom McCarthy is a throwback to Chekhov even in his generosity.

Both of McCarthy’s films are gifts to actors who might otherwise never have played a leading role. Peter Dinklage, a dwarf and ambitious actor, scored the part of a lifetime in The Station Agent, the film that made him famous. (This summer Dinklage is doing Uncle Vanya on stage. Chekhov seems to be everywhere.) And McCarthy wrote The Visitor for Richard Jenkins. Jenkins, a chameleon-like character actor, has appeared in over forty films and several TV series, but would probably go unrecognized on an airplane. Now on the other side of sixty, Jenkins is bald, his face terraced with acne scars. He lacks the presence, intensity, or magnetism of an actor who can carry a film. Indeed, when McCarthy, himself an experienced character actor, showed Jenkins the screenplay, Jenkins was thrilled but worried that if he played the lead no one would finance the film. Apparently, McCarthy’s casting was buttressed by his Chekhovian inspiration; The Visitor is not a vehicle for a star. It is a chapter in the life of a man who looks exactly like Richard Jenkins. His name is Walter Vale, and he is a professor of economics at Connecticut College.

McCarthy’s Walter is singularly un-self-reflexive, never peering into his depths. We will come to know him by his reactions. Walter is diffident and evasive, and seems to have lost interest in everyone and everything except for the glass of red wine always at hand. The professor is a tenured placeholder, giving the same lectures by rote in the same course he has taught for years. He offers nothing of himself to his students or his research. When we first encounter him, a classical piano piece is playing in the background; he secures his glass of wine and listlessly sits down to practice the piano like a reluctant child. The doorbell rings. It is a woman approximately his age. We might wonder why she is there. And McCarthy means us to wonder when, after refusing the wine she has been offered, she asks, “shall we begin?” Begin what?

She is there, it turns out, to give him a piano lesson. Like Chekhov’s stories, the moment is sad and funny at the same time. Walter has no talent for the piano, and she instructs him as if he were just the recalcitrant child he affects. In the same awkward and ambiguous way he invited the woman into his house, he informs her that he will not be taking any more lessons from her. We might expect her to beat a hasty retreat, embarrassed by his rejection. Quite unexpectedly, and with total composure, she asks him how many other teachers he has fired. Walter admits that there have been several others. As she calmly leaves, she remarks that the piano is superb, and, if someday he should decide to sell it, she would buy it.Later, she does.

These first moments in the film are like the first act of a play. Walter Vale’s character—isolated in his unhappiness, treading water in his life—has been established. We can see the kind of man he is by his desultory manner at the piano, by the way he shuts out his students, by the way he keeps his red wine within reach, and by the way he resists the efforts of the Economics Department to send him to a conference at NYU to read a paper written by a colleague who is pregnant and indisposed. (Walter’s supposed coauthorship is a fraud.) A psychoanalyst would say that Walter is depressed, still grieving over his wife, a classical pianist (the music we heard at the beginning of the film is hers) who died a few years before; that he has not worked through the loss, and is taking piano lessons as a way to hold on to her.

If Woody Allen had written the screenplay, Walter would have been in psychoanalysis trying to plumb the depths of his neurotic depression and taking Prozac to lift his spirits. But the Professor Vale of McCarthy’s imagination refuses to look inward and has problems more profound than the loss of his beloved wife. As we soon discover, he has in fact been faking his career as an economics professor for twenty years; in all that time, no project has ever engaged his passions. He is locked into his alienation, and, while he is not charismatic, Jenkins makes him totally believable and engages our empathy.

The second act finds the professor, having been forced to go to New York, encountering the world to which Tom McCarthy wants to introduce his audience. With The Visitor, McCarthy also presents a social and political agenda. His success with The Station Agent brought the State Department to his door and sent him to Lebanon in a cultural outreach program that, if it did not change anything in Lebanon, has had profound effects on the filmmaker. What impressed him was the vitality and the energy of the “Arabs” and their enthusiasm for life. It was not what McCarthy knew or what he had seen portrayed in film.

He started work on The Visitor with the idea of a young Syrian musician, Tarek, who played an African drum and had all the joie de vivre that Walter would lack. He found the perfect actor for the role of Tarek: Haaz Sleiman, an Arab-American born in Detroit who is irresistibly appealing and radiates happiness. The second act of The Visitor shows us the budding friendship between Tarek and the frozen Walter. In Tarek’s drum, Walter will find his true musical instrument and the possibility of escaping the prison his life has become.

That takes us to the next twist in the story: Tarek is in the country illegally, and the plight of illegal immigrants in post-9/11 America opens up before us. What occurs in this film is deeply moving—whatever your position on immigration law—because the filmmaker’s sketch of the characters is so compelling. Walter encounters Tarek and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira) when he finds them living in his New York pied-à-terre, which he has not visited for months. Is it believable that the Walter we met in Connecticut would invite an Arab and his African girlfriend to stay on in his apartment? It is the way McCarthy tells his story with unexpected Chekhovian details,with Walter reacting rather than acting out of settled conviction, that convinces us.

The second act ends with Tarek being arrested and detained, and another visitor appears. (Everyone in the film, Walter included, might be the titular visitor.) Tarek’s mother Mouna, played by the commanding and elegant Hiam Abbass, an Israeli-Arab actress, shows up at Walter’s pied-à-terre. She introduces the third act, in which something like love seems to happen. Walter and Mouna worry together about Tarek, Walter courts her, and they spend their last night together cuddling each other in sorrow or something more. McCarthy leaves it to us to decide. It is their last night because Tarek has been deported and Mouna has decided she must follow him back to Syria. Why does Walter not ask her to marry him? Why does he not offer to go with her? Walter has come out of his cage, his character has unfolded, he has taken leave from his professorship, he has confessed to Mouna that for twenty years he had been pretending to be busy and really doing nothing. Yet McCarthy will not succumb to a Hollywood happy ending that ties up all the unraveled threads into a bow.

When Walter waves goodbye to Mouna at the airport, we sense that the possibility of love goes with her. At that point we could describe the Walter we have come to know with the line from Chekhov’s short story “In the Cart” that Nabokov found quintessential: “‘How strange,’ she reflected, ‘why does God give sweetness of nature, sad, nice kind eyes, to weak unhappy useless people—and why are they so attractive?’”

The film could have ended at the airport, and in a sense it does. In our empathy with Walter Vale, we have discovered the family of humanity and realized that it is through the alien other that we might transcend our stagnating selves. But McCarthy adds a postscript, presumably a vision of the professor’s redemption. In this last scene we see Walter busking in the New York subway, playing his African drum, fulfilling the dream that Tarek had shared with him. It is Walter’s moment of becoming the other, and it is filmed with all of the avant-garde filmmaker’s cinematic tricks. This is the only moment in a beautifully made and emotionally fulfilling film that provokes disbelief. Instead of Walter in triumph, what I see is a madman.