Reviewed by David Levinson

TO MOST people, Richard Jenkins will be familiar as the gloomy Fisher dad, who, killed at the outset of Six Feet Under, continues to haunt his family as an imagined ghost. Prior to that however, the actor was able to fashion a career out of other ghostly non-roles; dubbed “the man who wasn’t there” in a recent Film Comment piece, he’s made an art of soaking up negative space, cast as a steady line of nobodies over the years. Given his acting record, Jenkins might seem like an odd choice for a leading man. But he’s found a game host in Thomas McCarthy, who – in an act of Rosencratz-and-Guildenstern-like revision – allows him to take centre stage in his latest indie, The Visitor.

Continuing his run of sad sacks, Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a depressed economics teacher who finds himself drifting between academia (where he’s spotted recycling last year’s syllabus), and his home in the suburbs of Connecticut. The loss of his wife may provide Walter with a distraction for his misery, but his condition feels like a sign of some deeper unrest. That much is spelled out in the film’s opening shot, in which Walter is seen staring pensively out his living-room window, lost in bird chatter as he awaits ... something? In grooming Jenkins-the-leading-man, McCarthy relies almost entirely on that kind of inference; rather than challenge Jenkins, he buries him in an avalanche of silences, so that the actor’s quiet non-presence is forced to stand in for all kinds of unspoken pain.

Testing our sympathy is the hint of an anger streak, rearing its head when the professor snaps at a student who bursts into his office pleading for an extension on his assignment. But any friction is quickly ironed out when – upon relocating to New York in order to attend a conference – Walter acts hopelessly feeble while being shaken down by a young Syrian named Tarek, who claims to had his apartment legitimately rented to him and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab. After solving the mix-up (a bad case of a dodgy landlord), Tarek and Zainab pack their stuff up and head to the sidewalk, only to be invited back inside by Walter. From that point on – having confirmed his good nature – Walter remains a trouble-free frontman, left to steer McCarthy’s tale of political awakening towards its inevitable outpouring. Any conviction that this represents some kind of breakthrough for Jenkins is only so much pretense; at the end of the day, what McCarthy has found is a puppet meek enough to not distract from his agenda.

One downside of that fact is that McCarthy never bothers to flesh out a real life for Walter; resigned to the barest of criteria, he remains a sad slice cut out of the demographical pie. In terms of his professional life, at one point we’re told that the professor has written four books, and is currently working on a fifth. But when a character enquires what the book’s about, Walter rebuffs that it’s difficult to discuss the writing process with someone who isn’t a writer. Thus, tipping Kaufman’s neurotic angst on its head, McCarthy presents his struggle as a kind of worn-out pantomime, revived now and then purely for the sake of upkeep.

Eventually, in a moment of cleansing, Walter reveals that he hasn’t done any real work for a long time, meaning that the question of the book-in-progress (whose subject is never revealed) finds itself junked in favour of the much more compelling truth of its author’s inner paralysis. Yet, at the end of the day, that cop-out says as much about Walter as it does McCarthy, who seems perfectly happy to dip his feet into the world of academia (alongside the cliché of the struggling writer) without granting either of those areas the weight of specificity. Typical of that approach is the way McCarthy cuts briefly to the lecture hall where Walter is delivering a paper, and where projected on a screen behind him is a single word: “Globalization.” As a signpost coinciding with the film’s liberal take-over, the term might as well appear in neon: Dumped on Walter’s doorstep – his life devoted to abstract economic theory – the pair are a flesh-and-blood case-study of hardship: theory in motion.

For McCarthy’s characters – broken-down, dispirited, lonely – his films tend to play out like group couch-sessions; rising to fame with 2003’s The Station Agent, McCarthy’s debut wrapped quirky maximalism in a blanket of trauma that begged it to be taken seriously, as it mapped out the therapeutic triangle that took shape between a dwarf, a Cuban, and the damaged woman who enters their lives, still reeling from the loss of her son. Likewise, the steady (bleeding) heart of The Visitor proves to be the bond struck between Walter and his pair of accidental home-invaders, who, bereft of green cards, have come to America in search of better horizons.

At first Walter’s hospitality is met with resistance, doled out here by the more guarded Zainab. Tarek, on the other hand, takes an instant liking to host, sparking a relationship that coasts along nicely based on the quirky chemistry of the two actors. Unfortunately, even their modest rapport isn’t enough to overcome McCarthy’s outsized purpose and clunky symbolism. Soon enough it becomes clear that the eternally-beaming Tarek is little more than a charm sent to counsel Walter on the ways of the world. In that sense – as a Benneton-ad come to life – the object binding the two men proves to be an African drum (or “djembe”) owned by Tarek, which he plays in an after-hours jazz band. Walking in on his guest practising, pantsless (as he informs Walter, he always feels most at home in his underwear), in the living room one afternoon, Walter’s musical curiosity is piqued for the second time, igniting a hobby which finds itself reduced to cloying life-lesson by McCarthy: As Tarek pointedly tells Walter, if he wants to master the drum, then has to break free from the restriction of Western music’s 4-beats-per-measure, surrendering to the 3-beat vitality of Africa.

Subsequent scenes of the two men playing side-by-side in Central Park ache with a timid nostalgia for a more modest, irretrievable way of life; New York has proven to be endlessly pliable in the hands of filmmakers, and McCarthy is no different, paying exclusive tribute to the vacant boulevards, continental cafes, and marketplace-stalls which occupy the couple’s marginal existence. That view comes at a price, however: Pitching his characters’ relationship as an exclusive club, McCarthy freely stokes the egos of its liberal subscribers – in one scene taking an easy pot-shot at the ignorance of a woman who purchases one of Zainab’s bracelets. Discovering her vendor hails from Senegal, the woman remarks that she’s just been in Cape Town and that it was beautiful there. After she leaves, Zainab explains to her neighbour that Capetown is 8000km away from Senegal, before breaking out into self-satisfied laughter.

If Walter’s new-found fulfilment spent adopting immigrants seems too good to be to true, then that’s because it is. In a twist that totally rewrites the rules of the game, The Visitor finds itself spun into protest song, after Tarek is arrested for jumping a subway turnstile; the charge is a mistake – the machine swallowed his ticket – but instead of the customary slap-on-the-wrist, the fact that he’s an overstayer propels his offence into a bureaucratic nightmare.

Given McCarthy’s record, the move feels like a self-conscious rejection of the limits of the domestic indie; courting us for over an hour with the knowing sincerity of his multiculturalism, his subsequent rug-pulling feels like an attempt to prove that that kind of modest character-drama is no longer viable in a post-9/11 world. Scott Foundas, in his review for the Village Voice, has described the thought process behind McCarthy’s new role as human-rights crusader, the catalyst for which was a trip taken to the Middle East . The problem is that – alongside pimping his outreach agenda, which in itself feels lukewarm and didactic – McCarthy also remains committed to Walter’s character arc; suddenly woken out of his stupor by his ‘visitors’, Walter becomes an easy identifier for our own rage, a balding everyman attesting that “yes, you too can make a difference”. No surprise, then, that the film ends with a shot of our hero, having fully absorbed the lessons learned over the course of the film. With Tarek safely out the picture – having been deported – Walter’s enduring presence confirms that what McCarthy has done is taken a modest character study, padded it out with ponderous silences, and then filled those silences with rage.