Nothing about The Visitor should work, which is why it's a small miracle that everything does. A quick summary of its plot-- a white, widowed, burned-out professor travels from his home in Connecticut to Manhattan to deliver a conference paper; meets two illegal immigrants who are squatting in his apartment; moves from cautious respect to friendship with them over the course of the film; watches in horror as one of them is arrested and placed in a detainment center, works hard to get the man released, and bonds with the man's mother--sets off any number of alarm bells for me about heavy-handedness, smug political hectoring and Hallmark Hall of Fame-style sentimentality. But this film from Thomas McCarthy (the writer and director of The Station Agent) is so assured in its tone, so striking in its visual arrangements, and so breathtakingly generous to its actors that it reminded me that cinema is so much more than plot, and that the best films are often composed of tiny grace notes layered in offbeat patterns, like the drum circles that power so much of The Visitor's narrative.
We first encounter Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) in his Connecticut house, its bright white walls and highly symmetrical doors and windows almost entombing him in silence and propriety. An elderly woman (Marian Seldes) arrives at the home, and after some stiff conversation, suggests they get down to business. Is she a lawyer? A family friend? Someone coming to look at the house, which seems so immaculate that it might be up for sale? Nothing is revealed in this initial dialogue, which exists less for the sake of story than to reveal Vale's character: polite, proper, well-intended, but with a quiet frustration boiling beneath. So much of The Visitor will follow this scene's model, creating tiny vingettes, especially in its first half, that barely push the story along, but are rich in feeling and detail.
As it turns out, the elderly woman is Walter's piano teacher, but he's not very good (as we see in the quietly humorous scene that follows). He's not very good at anything anymore: he's distanced from his students (to whom he has not yet given a syllabus, despite it being the mid-point of the semester), avoids his colleagues (note his withdrawn body language and frustration when his department chair tells him to attend a conference he'd rather skip), eats alone in his home and seems like a cipher walking through the crowded college campus. These early scenes continue the symmetrical patterning that we saw in the house, framing Walter in such a way that his environment seems to engulf him: they're tableau-as-trap.
Even the bustle of New York City can't break the spell: as Walter drives or walks through the city, we see patterns of horizontals, diagonals, verticals, perfectly laid out. None of this is to suggest that the filmmakers themselves are boring, or trapped in a Kubrickian lust for perfect stills: if slightly schematic, these framings serve a purpose, and their order actually allows us to notice the life within the frame (students jostling and chatting, leaves falling, neon light reflecting off the lens), to let those tiny details that Walter is missing breathe in a way that a more hyperactive cutting might not; this juxtaposition only serves to make Walter's voluntary withdrawal from life more acute.
The shift comes when he meets Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), the squatters in his apartment. They initially think he's an intruder-- he stumbles upon Zainab in the bathtub, and Tarek grabs him by the collar, jostling his orderly life. Again, the tightness of the framing is effective here, trapping everyone in a space of visual and emotional claustrophobia. When they discover that they've been renting the apartment under false pretenses, Tarek and Zainab depart, but are invited back by Walter, who lets them stay "for a few days" while they find a place to live. One night, Tarek is going to a club to drum with his band, and he invites Walter to come (much to the chagrin of his more cynical wife); Walter declines, but changes his mind a few minutes later. That's the real turning point of the movie, both visually and narratively: all of the other, more melodramatic turns the plot takes stem from that willingness to join in and engage once more, and McCarthy signals this with his first off-kilter framing in the film: Tarek and Zainab in the lower left/center, standing on a stairwell, everything orderly-- then Walter suddenly popping his head out from the upper right, over the stairwell railing, a jagged diagonal that breaks the scheme.
The remainder of the film, despite its many crushing sadnesses, offers a joyous spirit that is, in the less tendentious meaning of the term, ennobling. McCarthy's looser framing allows the vibrant colors of Manhattan to flood the screen, and tracking shots and quicker cutting become visual correlatives to the symphony of noise that crams the soundtrack: jazz, pop, world music, voices in the park, subway cars screeching underground, laughter ringing everywhere. This will change once more in the final third of the film as Tarek is arrested and imprisoned-- the vibrant colors will turn gray and pallid, the joyous cacophony will become eerily silent--but the bonds between the characters, and between the film and its audience, doesn't fade.
If anything, the quiet that surrounded me a couple of weeks ago at the Cedar Lee screening (even the chatty Ya-Yas behind me stopped their monologuing) spoke to the film's power, and to the desire to have that earlier joy return. Just as in The Station Agent, McCarthy suggests that life is rarely that simple: for all the drama of its plot twists, they still come to us is tiny, quiet, deeply felt moments of juggled pain and hope, propriety and inappropriate gesture. Even the film's ending is less a resolution than a new beginning, where resignation and possibility play co-equal roles. Despite that, I'm utterly certain that The Visitor is a film of abiding optimism, and that this optimism is what makes it one of the best films I've seen in a long time: in the face of an overwhelming cynicism about the state of the world, The Visitor not only suggests the possibility of connection, love, and vibrant life in the face of tragedy, it embodies it and offers a model for it, a new set of songs and beats for a post-9/11 American cinema.