Alien is just another word for Visitor

Compared to The Station Agent, I felt no urge to re-watch McCarthy’s sophomore effort, The Visitor, not because it’s a bad film, but because… to put it bluntly… it’s quite a downer. Not that I believe that an artist should limit himself to life-affirming, mood-uplifting works. On the contrary. But looking through McCarthy’s oeuvre, he really does feel-good with a tinge of bittersweet SO well, it almost seems as if he just needed to do a truly sad film to get it out of his system. So “The Visitor”can be said to be a bit of a sophomore slump, not because of a decrease in quality, in fact McCarthy’s writing, technical, and directing skills were definitely further honed with this film, but because compared to the bright spots on his resume that are his other films, The Visitor is kind of like this gray, depressing blot that your eyes can’t help but shy away from or gloss over. Other directors would LOVE to “slump” this way though. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of humor and heart in this film, as much as in the others. And yet it’s the only one in his filmography so far that may leave its viewers with emotional scars.

Again, McCarthy squeezes out stellar performances from actors both veteran and fresh. This time, he does without the admitted visual gimmick of the The Station Agent’s vertically challenged protagonist. The contrast comes from juxtaposing the quietly & blandly privileged life of Richard Jenkins‘ economics professor Walter Vale with the more vividly intense existence of illegal aliens on the fringes of society. Written out like that, the plot reads rather like the typical White-Man-Learns-Life-Lessons-From-Noble-People-Of-Color Trope that’s probably been kicking around since two disparate races first started writing about each other. And McCarthy doesn’t exactly break or tread new ground with the plot here. Yes, the aliens teach the white guy about the more colorful aspects of their culture, thus stirring his passions. Yes, the white guy eventually sleeps with one of the exotic females. Yes, his Life Will Never Be The Same Again after casting aside (for a while) his White Person Problems to help take on his new friends’ Not-Quite-White People Problems. But if you allow the plot cliches to fade into the background and let the characters step up to the forefront, as McCarthy does, then the film’s merits begin to sing.

The greatly (up to this film) under-appreciated character actor Richard Jenkins really makes the most of the role of the befuddled nice guy thrust into unusual circumstances. It’s a triumph of understated acting that Jenkins still managed to carry the film and snag an Oscar nod despite not having any showy scenes, character tics or chewing any scenery. You readily believe that Walter is a good man, a smart man, and you root for him despite his lack of Hollywood good looks or a charming backstory. McCarthy eventually goes back to this character well to equally winning effect with Paul Giamatti in Win-Win. Haaz Sleiman‘s Tarek feels kind of like the Bobby Cannavale stand-in, the loveable hunk with boundless optimism. McCarthy seems to reserve and/or prefer a certain kind of tortured nobility for his female characters. Like Patricia Clarkson before them, Danai Gurira‘s Zainab and Tarek’s mother Mouna, played by the great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, are called upon to be the “straight women” to the bromance between Walter and Tarek. Zainab may be considered the most realistic (both in the way she’s portrayed and written) character in the film, cautious in her dealings with Walter, and in the end, reacting in a way that an actual illegal alien in real life (and not the idealized ones in lesser films than this) most probably would. In Mouna, we get a sort of idealized exile, cast out and seeking asylum for unimpeachable reasons, living a life of dignified poverty beneath her true worth. Played by an actress as intelligently attractive as Abbas, what red-blooded liberal New York economics professor wouldn’t want to have an affair with her? McCarthy walks a fine line keeping this chapter of the film from turning into a Nicholas Sparks book for the MSNBC set. But then he wisely chooses to leave the ending melancholy, messy and ambiguous, much like real life, and like most of the indie art films that work hard at pretending to emulate it.

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