BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: the visitor.

THE TRICKSTER is a common figure in literature and mythology, the mischievous imp which effects social change by subverting norms of behaviour. A movement within “African American” literature was to use the trickster figure to try and dismantle oppressive institutions – the trickster tells the truths about people that they pretend not to hear otherwise, effecting the way people view ‘everyday life’. It’s quite a subversive tool – I, like I suspect many in the audience, sided with the family, as opposed to the infuriating Harry (Danny Glover). When in actual fact, the film shows the evil Harry as a necessary tool in bringing the family together, for confronting uncomfortable home truths, and for forcing the characters to find their own family identity.

Like The Visitor in Pasolini’s Theorem, Harry just shows up unannounced to a bourgeois family’s house and proceeds to cause havoc. It starts innocently enough, Harry’s reluctant to impose on Gideon and Suzie’s family for too long, and asks only for basic bedding and a bathroom. After a while, he doesn’t appear to want to leave (the mordant ending is very funny), taking over the house and sowing discontent among the family, the children, and the grandchildren. Soon some lie dying, others marriages are on the verge of destruction, and brothers fight with each other. In many ways, Harry is a devil-like character – suave, charming, but with a bite. Another point of reference for this film is Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where the guests inability to leave a party unpeeled the savagery that lurked beneath bourgeois behaviour.

The film is anchored in Glover’s performance as Harry – Burnett’s handling of actors is much more assured than in his earlier features (probably helped by having more of a name cast). Glover also provides such a focal point to the film, that when he disappears a bit in the second half, the pace lags a little. The technical aspects of the film are well-constructed too, and the music provides a lovely counterpoint to the images. It’s also a funny film, a sharp satire on American family life, and a subversion of the commonly sanitised “black” bourgeois.