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The Visitor (Blu-ray)

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Like his first film, The Station Agent, Tom McCarthy's elegantly structured sophomore effort, The Visitor, tells a very simple story about a human being inching his way out of a self-imposed emotional cocoon. Richard Jenkins stars as professor Walter Vale, a middle-aged widower going through the motions at his job, as well as in his life. Aside from a diminishing desire to learn piano, Walter lives without any passion -- not even his young eager students touch him. Jenkins plays the character without an ounce of hangdog charm -- he is not a lovable loser, but a cold shell of a person, disconnected from everybody and everything. When his boss orders him to attend an academic conference in New York City, he grudgingly relents and discovers quite a surprise when he arrives at the apartment he keeps there, which he hasn't been to in many years. He finds a pair of illegal immigrants, Tarek and Zainab, who have taken up residence. Although Walter kicks them out, he eventually relents out of common decency -- the two have nowhere else to go for the night.The Syrian-born Tarek, played beautifully by newcomer Haaz Sleiman, is full of all the life and enthusiasm that Walter lacks -- so much so that his goodwill naturally spills over into his work as a professional jazz percussionist. He and his girlfriend work out an understanding with Walter over the use of the apartment, and one day he arrives home to find Walter there, attempting to play one of his African drums. Tarek begins giving the older man lessons, and Walter experiences a joy while practicing that begins his emotional rehabilitation. Just when everything seems to be going well for the new friends, however, a misunderstanding at a subway station leads to Tarek's detention at a center for illegal immigrants. Walter does everything he can to help the young man, including hiring a lawyer and visiting him as much as possible. In one poignant scene, they practice drum rhythms over the phone during visitation as they look at each other across a glass partition.This is, in many ways, the exact same story arc McCarthy employed in The Station Agent; the mournful loner learns to come out of his shell. However, where that film was content to tell just the characters' stories, The Visitor has a much more ambitious theme. With a subtle insistence, McCarthy makes the viewer aware that Walter represents where America is spiritually and emotionally in the years after September 11, 2001. This theme takes root slowly, blossoming as the film develops and as the audience gradually, but most assuredly, learns to care for the main character. In Walter's relationship with Tarek, Tom McCarthy offers a critique that America, like Walter, loses its way when it shuts itself off from other people. The list of great films about post 9/11 America is very short, but The Visitor belongs on it, in large part because it distills huge societal issues down to one very simple and compelling human story. Perry Seibert, All Movie Guide

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