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An Actor's Director

Thomas McCarthy carves out a plum role for veteran character actor Richard Jenkins in The Visitor.

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THE VISITOR ssss Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy With Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass

So much film criticism focuses on directors that we sometimes forget what draws most people to the screen: the prospect of seeing an actor connect with a role and really live it. That connection can't be willed, and it can empower an average performer to give an outstanding performance—how else could Jennifer Garner, as the yearning adoptive mother in Juno, steal scenes from a brilliant young brat like Ellen Page?

Directors who understand how to handle actors often describe their job not as barking orders like Otto Preminger but as creating a work environment in which the actors can find their characters. Thomas McCarthy, a busy actor (he played the corrupt young Baltimore Sun reporter on the last season of HBO's The Wire), has written and directed two features—The Station Agent (2003) and now The Visitor—and in each he's excelled at pulling actors into his stories with roles written especially for them. This strategy has resulted in some truly memorable characters.

Perversely, both movies are about men who can't connect. Fin McBride, the brooding dwarf in The Station Agent, is so fed up with people's humiliating reactions to him that when he unexpectedly inherits a disused railroad station in rural New Jersey, he retreats into it like a monk. Still the world dogs him: the local convenience store owner rudely snaps his picture, and the local librarian is so startled by him that she yelps and drops a stack of books. McCarthy wrote the role for Peter Dinklage, whom he'd directed in a play years earlier; even so, it required a strong acting commitment. "Dink is one of the funniest guys I know," McCarthy told usedwigs.com. "We really had to strip him down. That's tough for an actor, especially someone like Peter who has used his sense of humor to get through life.... [Fin] doesn't want to be charming, he doesn't want to be flirty, he doesn't want to be sarcastic. He really just wants to be left alone." Dinklage gives a remarkably controlled performance; there's a lifetime of pain in his mild remark that he doesn't like bars.

McCarthy achieves a similar alchemy in The Visitor with Richard Jenkins, for whom he wrote the role of Walter Vale, a middle-aged economics professor grappling with the death of his concert pianist wife. Like Fin, Walter wants the world to go away: he blows off his students, zones out at departmental meetings, and listens to his wife's CD while cooking spaghetti sauce to be eaten alone. When his Connecticut university sends him to New York to deliver a paper, he arrives at the apartment he and his wife kept there for years and finds an immigrant couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), have been conned into renting the place. They quickly agree to clear out, but Walter takes pity on them and invites them to stay for the time being.

Jenkins, a balding, bespectacled character actor perhaps best known as the ghostly father on Six Feet Under, has enjoyed a long Hollywood career playing dry, buttoned-down types—doctors, lawyers, executives—and he seizes on the role of Walter, a man no one seems to notice. "I understood this man," Jenkins recently told the New York Times. "I understood his reluctance to reach out, to become part of things."

The first scene of the movie shows Walter taking piano lessons from a rather severe older woman, and afterward, when he politely tells her he's going to end the lessons, there's a beautifully played comic moment in which she admits he lacks a "natural gift" and offers to buy his piano. Later, as Walter grows more friendly with Tarek, a warmhearted Syrian percussionist, he discovers he has a talent for rhythm and begins experimenting with the djembe. Before long Tarek has him out in the park with an afternoon drum circle, incongruous at the funky gathering in his starchy suit and tie. Jenkins shows the man's modesty and discomfort, but also his decency and, when events turn painful, his strength. The first time Jenkins saw the finished cut of The Visitor, he reportedly told McCarthy, "I've been waiting my whole career to do a movie like this."

The Visitor largely recycles the character dynamic of The Station Agent. Tarek isn't far removed from Joe Oramos (Bobby Cannavale), the outgoing Italian hot dog vendor who coaxes Fin out of his shell. And just as Fin endures the agonies of unrequited love for Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), a troubled married woman who lives nearby, Walter falls in love with Mouna (Hiam Abbass), Tarek's dignified and beautiful mother. Yet this time McCarthy allows his story to unfold into a political drama: Tarek is stopped by plainclothes policemen in the subway, busted as an illegal immigrant, and remanded to a detention center in Queens. Walter makes it a personal mission to free Tarek, hiring an immigration attorney and taking a leave of absence from his job to stay in New York. The irony is overwhelming and yet somehow muted: Walter Vale is learning to open himself up again in a country that's closing itself down.

Because Mouna and Zainab are both illegal immigrants, Walter is Tarek's only visitor, and they nurse their friendship from opposite sides of a Plexiglas window. The detention center is a weirdly anonymous building adorned with the bland acronym UCC (United Correctional Corporation). "It doesn't look like a prison," says Mouna as she and Walter survey it from a distance. "I think that's the idea," he replies. The lack of connection with the outside world clearly preys on Tarek; as he explains to Walter, the lights are on 24 hours a day, and there's no outdoor area for the 300 detainees, just a room with an open roof. When Walter brings notes from Mouna and Zainab, he has to hold them up against the window, modestly turning his head as Tarek reads. During one visit Tarek begs Walter to drum on the table for him: "Come on, I need some music, man!" Walter obliges, tapping out a beat on the narrow table they share, and Tarek joins in.

I'm not surprised to learn that this element of the story also grew out of a personal connection. In his research for the movie McCarthy got involved with the Sojourners, an outreach program at Riverside Church in New York, and spent about a year visiting detainees at a center in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. One was a Nigerian man who'd been in detention for three and a half years and asked McCarthy to help process his deportation case so he could return to his native land. "I kept visiting him, trying to do what I could," McCarthy told ifc.com. "You get very involved. I'd find myself visiting him on holidays, or leaving Manhattan early from work to go see him. You know, it's someone you care about." He might be speaking for Walter, but he might as easily be speaking for the viewer who forms an attachment to his characters. The best movies are like a visit you wish would never end.v

For more on movies, see our blog On Film at chicagoreader.com.

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