Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has come and gone from theaters, having given moviegoers everything it promised to provide. It gave us a beloved star (Harrison Ford), more grizzled than in the past but still in fine shape, in the most popular role of his career; a leading performer (Karen Allen) from the first installment to reprise her role as love interest; a rising young star (Shia LaBeouf) testing his charisma against that of a Hollywood legend; and various Grand Imperial Pooh-Bahs from British Rep (Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent) enjoying a well-paid Hollywood lark.
Above all, the fourth Indiana Jones gives audiences loads of fun, of the Fall Down Go Boom variety. Steven Spielberg obviously is grateful to shed the trappings of High Art and go back to George Lucas’ playhouse to tinker with a few toys. As with previous installments, the latest movie is a series of state-of-the-art chase scenes and special effects, designed to get the blood of even the crustiest old critic pumping. (One Jeep chase, through an Amazonian jungle and ending in a literal cliffhanger, is guaranteed to have you chewing your fingernails down to the knuckle joint.)
However, as a sop to the Zeitgeist of 2008, Spielberg adds an unexpected element: Indiana Jones, Red Suspect. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is set in the early 1950s, and the FBI is, shall we say, interested as to why Indy was in the desert near a nuclear testing site with a bunch of known Soviet agents (you know what I’m talking about if you’ve seen the movie). After an unfriendly session with a couple of government agents, Indy returns to his university teaching job, only to find he’s been summarily dismissed on charges of subversion and disloyalty.
Spielberg’s message is clear: if Indiana Jones can have his civil rights abridged by the U.S. government, anyone can. Which leads me to the main topic of this review: Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor.
The Visitor tells the story of Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a Connecticut College economics professor whose life is on autopilot. A widower with no children, Vale lives alone in a big house near the campus, teaching from the same syllabus he’s used for years, avoiding all but the most necessary contact with students and colleagues. His one connection with the outside world is his weekly piano lesson, an attempt to recapture his life with his late wife, who was a concert pianist. But even that does nothing to mitigate his isolation: his piano teacher (Marian Seldes) points out the obvious fact that he has no talent, and asks if she can buy his piano.
Forced to deliver a paper at a conference in New York, Vale heads to Manhattan, where he has an apartment he has not visited in many months. Entering the flat, however, he notices a vase of fresh flowers on the coffee table. Within ten seconds, Vale discovers a young black woman in his bathtub. Within fifteen, he has a young Middle Eastern man pointing a knife at his throat.
The young Muslim couple—Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), a Somalian—rented the apartment in good faith under a con man’s false pretenses. Seeing that Tarek and Zainab have nowhere to go, Vale thaws his wintry heart and allows them to share the apartment with him.
Over the ensuing days, Vale learns much about his new roommates. Tarek, open and friendly, has been in the U.S. many years, previously living in Michigan with his mother, though neither has legal status. A jazz drummer, Tarek teaches Vale the rudiments of bongo playing and introduces him to his musician friends around town. Zainab, more guarded and in the U.S. a much shorter time, sells her handmade jewelry at a flea market.
Things go smoothly for the most part, until a mixup at a subway station suddenly causes Tarek to be encircled by police. The cops haul him away, threatening Vale with arrest when he tries to intercede.
From then on, The Visitor becomes the story of the nightmare all Middle Eastern immigrants face in post-9/11 America. The distinction of McCarthy’s screenplay is to show the nightmare through the eyes of Vale, whose name takes on symbolic meaning at this point: for years he has been looking at life through a veil of depressed self-involvement, and Tarek’s plight rips that veil from his eyes, as it does from the eyes of the audience. We see that the visitor is Vale himself—a tourist in his own life, forced finally to start living and taking responsibility again.
Through dogged searching Vale finally finds Tarek’s detention center, more of a warehouse than a prison. He does his best, through his few brief visits, to keep up the increasingly depressed, embittered Tarek’s morale. He seeks legal representation for Tarek and strives to find out the very little he can from government authorities. The terrified Zainab soon fades into the background, but another woman makes her presence known: Mouna (Hiam Abbass), Tarek’s mother, who hurries to New York when Tarek’s regular phone calls home suddenly cease. As it turns out, Mouna carries a significant load of guilt as well as grief and worry regarding Tarek’s plight. Furthermore, Mouna and Vale gradually stir feelings in each other that both had thought long dead.
Emotionally and schematically, The Visitor bears strong similarities to The Station Agent, McCarthy’s debut feature of a few years ago. Like The Visitor, The Station Agent shows how lonely, disconnected people can create their own family circles through unexpected bonds of affection. Finbar (Peter Dinklage), a four-foot-six-inch man who has come to expect nothing but mockery from the world, moves to a decrepit train depot in rural New Jersey he inherits from his late boss and only friend. Very slowly, he begins to warm to the friendly overtures of two neighbors: Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a fast-talking hot dog vendor whose life is circumscribed by caring for his invalid father, and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an eccentric artist grieving the death of her child and the bitter disintegration of her marriage. Unfolding like a fine short story, The Station Agent ends with a moment of exquisite peace and harmony between the three friends.
The Visitor depicts similar bonds of affection forming between Vale and his new Muslim friends, with the crucial difference that officialdom shows up to destroy those bonds. There have been plenty of films over the years that have depicted the heartlessness of immigration law, most of them dealing with Latin American immigrants. The Visitor shows how the federal government’s newly found zeal to trap potential Middle Eastern terrorists usually ends up hurting harmless souls who themselves were fleeing what the U.S. claims to be fighting. The Visitor is all the more chilling in that it never shows any government official above the level of police detective or prison guard. The sheer lack of accountability grinds down Vale, Tarek, and everyone else caught up in it. The film demonstrates a frightening truth, consistent throughout recorded history: given the opportunity to become bullies, vast numbers of people will take it, and a badge, which for practical purposes confers right as well as might, offers the best opportunity of all. When Vale finally throws off his emotional reticence and blows up at the people with badges, he might as well be yelling at the wall. (Though McCarthy doesn’t belabor the point, most of the detectives and guards are members of minority groups that suffer prejudice and discrimination in America to this day.)
Like The Station Agent, The Visitor is a notably fresh, living film, both for its finely wrought dialogue and the heartrending performances by its quartet of lead actors. Richard Jenkins, whom McCarthy chose for his ordinary, rather anonymous appearance, is the standout. Jenkins, probably best known for his recurring role as an undertaker’s ghost in HBO’s Six Feet Under, is a character actor of seemingly infinite range, his bland looks enhancing his versatility; according to the Internet Movie Database, he has appeared in nearly eighty films and TV programs since 1974. One of his best comedy performances was in David O. Russell’s hilarious 1996 film Flirting with Disaster, in which he played a gay FBI agent in a relationship with a much younger and handsomer agent played by Josh Brolin. Brolin announced himself as a major actor last year with his performance as Moss in No Country for Old Men; this year, in The Visitor, it’s Jenkins’ turn. His performance as Vale is one of those—such as Billy Bob Thornton’s in Sling Blade or the late Ulrich Muhe’s in The Lives of Others—that begins almost blankly but builds emotionally in almost imperceptible steps. When he reaches his emotional exploding point near the end, the audience is totally surprised, yet totally prepared for it.
The Visitor is the story of one man’s emotional reawakening—for which he and three other people have to pay a hideously high price. That is the only real conclusion in a country that increasingly divides people into police, troublemakers, and troublemakers who haven’t been caught yet.