Richard Jenkins has finally come into his own.
Jenkins is one of those character actors whose face is familiar but not that familiar, in spite of appearing in almost 80 films. I remember him best as the crazed editor’s long-suffering husband in The Witches Of Eastwick. Jenkins is a master of restraint. In this role, he sits smiling and quietly reading a newspaper while his loopy wife gets progressively more and more possessed by the devil. Finally, he quietly rises, takes a fireplace poker, smashes her, and returns to his reading.
In The Visitor (just released on DVD, for those of you who missed this little gem of a film), Jenkins is a widower — lonely, bored with his academic job, and forced to go to New York to deliver an academic paper with which he was only peripherally involved. He keeps a New York apartment which he hasn’t used (probably since his wife’s death). He opens the door to find fresh flowers on the table and a woman in the bathtub. With his typical restraint, he never rises to panic. Two strangers have been conned into renting the apartment — a Syrian drummer (Haaz Sleiman) and a Senegalese jewelry maker (Hian Abbass).
The “visitors” quickly pack and apologetically leave. He finds them out on the street, frantically trying to find a room for the night. He’s a kind man, concerned, and he offers them temporary shelter. Here begins an affecting tale of a lonely man and two frightened illegals who come into his life and create for him, temporarily, a new family.
The film has a double theme: first, the rebirth of a lonely spirit, and second, the unfairness of an immigration system which has, for years, turned its back on immigration laws to permit illegal, cheap labor for the sake of the economy but grossly mistreats these two good people who only want shelter in a decent system.
Jenkins is slowly changed as he becomes fascinated by his “visitor’s” drums to the point where he, in his tie and business suit, sits in with a group of drummers in Central Park. When Turek’s mother (Danai Gurira) comes east to help her son, the lonely professor enters a new relationship — not romantically, in the Hollywood sense, but in real, believable scenes between a strong woman whose life has been filled with trauma and a gentle, chivalrous man.
The story was written and directed by Tom McCarthy who did the quite wonderful Station Agent. The Visitor is, alone this season, the only film which celebrates truly decent people who act with kindness as they struggle against a system which does not prize their qualities. Just decent people trying to do the right thing…and with a real ending — not a Hollywood, contrived finish.
If you missed The Visitor or if you want to take another look, this DVD is out and available.