I absolutely love all of McCarthy’s films. As of this writing, he has directed The Station Agent, Win Win, and the subject of this post, The Visitor. He also wrote all of the above plus Up, Pixar’s masterpiece with its beautiful opening that leaves no dry eye in the house before the actual plot even begins!
|You know what happens next. You know you cried.|
Thomas McCarthy the Artist
All of McCarthy’s screenplays have the same basic structure: a solitary soul finds his life interrupted by an extroverted yet endearing new presence. This intrusion forces him to question himself and change his ways; in so doing, he comes to regard this initially-unwelcome newcomer as a life-changing friend. Despite this ostensible sameness in his work, through pensive dialog and believable characterization, McCarthy deftly avoids the trap of gimmicky self-indulgence into which M. Night Shyamalan long ago fell headlong.
I find it very appropriate that McCarthy’s films have all received Independent Spirit Award attention. McCarthy’s direction indeed embodies the spirit of independent film: emphasis on character moments and internal struggle over big-budget spectacle and Hollywood stardom. His photography makes every place he shoots in from rural New Jersey to Manhattan look warm and inviting. His stories have a pensive quietude that I find refreshing and uplifting. He has an uncanny ability to inject warmth, humor, or gravitas into even mundane, quotidian scenes. His film’s scores put the emphasis on character and scenery; they do their function by staying out of the way.
I could talk for hours about all of McCarthy’s work, but The Visitor has the most to do with this blog. The film tackles illegal immigration, racial profiling, an intransigent justice system, prison privatization, the ability of music to bring people together, and of course, post-9/11 perceptions of Arabs, all in a beautiful, salutary way.
In his pre-9/11 days, Dennis Miller once said, “[T]his country’s so intolerant right now, they might as well change the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty to read, ‘Go the fuck back to Fuckatania!’”1 Even though Dennis Miller later publicly hurled intolerance of his own, the quote above still aptly describes this story’s setting.
The Visitor centers on illegal immigration and the fears of both undocumented residents and the citizens alongside whom they live. Personally, I feel very strongly that we as a country mishandle the issue of illegal immigration entirely. We try to come up with the most creative, dehumanizing ways we can of discouraging or removing undocumented residents (such as turning them away from hospitals, proposing an electrified border fence, calling for a repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment, or functionally making it probable cause to have brown skin in Arizona), but at no point have I ever seen politicians or even most citizens talk about them as human beings.
I’ve never even seen a politician ask, “Why do people immigrate illegally?” Can anyone honestly say that, if they lived in a destitute land with no hope for a bright future, they wouldn’t come to America in the hopes of giving that future to themselves or their children? If we can’t fix the root causes, and those who immigrate illegally feel like they have to come here, then what can we do to integrate them into our economy?
Draconian treatment of undocumented residents deals with a symptom, not a cause. Such ideas rely on the argument that deliberately overpunishing an existing crime will remove the reason or temptation to commit it. So far, that idea has yet to actually work. At this point, increasing punishments can do little more than it already has. For centuries, people have smuggled themselves into America and lived for years or decades in fear of the quotidian vicissitudes of American life, enduring humiliating privations and menial, physically-deleterious labor. Considering the far right’s longstanding, virulent anti-immigration fervor, I refuse to believe that xenophobia, racism, nativism, and American credulity in the face of political scapegoating don’t underpin these sentiments to at least some extent. This incarceration also feeds into the private prison lobby, a group of people I consider inimical to American citizens and ideals in every way. The Visitor puts to the audience a rhetorical question: would we still support these measures if we came to know the human beings beyond the infractions?
For other insights on the immigration debate, check out this excellent article by Native rights and immigration writer/orator Aura Bogado, a writer from The Nation. Just last weekend, Bogado delivered a keynote speech at this Energy Action Coalition conference, where she posited a link between climate change and northward immigration. Her words on the effects of immigration on the economy take on an interesting new meaning considering that just this week, The New York Times reported that budget cuts necessitated a mass release of undocumented residents.2
In any case, The Visitor handles this issue with the same degree of fairness and humanity as Dirty Pretty Things and the same frustration and indignation as Machete. Unlike either of those films, I find it apropos that The Visitor takes place in New York City.3 The silent-lipped cries of Ellis Island’s mighty, torch-bearing woman of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem feel like satire at this point.
|McCarthy pointedly pans to this private prison wall mural, flanked by forlorn visitors of undocumented inmates.|
In parallel to post-9/11 perceptions of Arabs and Muslims, the four principal characters of The Visitor all have more to them than what we see. In the course of the film, the protagonist Walter Vale and the other three principals—Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna—all make difficult revelations that change how we view them and make us see the human being under the surface, in all his/her flaws and foibles.
|Any other film would probably depict this as a Snidely Whiplash-esque evil smile.|
Tarek becomes the victim of the aforementioned immigration system. He spends the last two acts of the film immured in an anonymous, featureless stone monolith of a private prison, living alongside 300 immigrants, all stuck without their freedoms, their families, most of what defines their identities, or even the slightest clue what awaits them. That this happens to such a nice man, through arguably no fault of his own, only heightens the tragedy.
With each of the film’s intermittent visits to the facility, we see this arbitrary, pernicious system and its nameless, insensate, indifferent employees grind down his bonhomie, optimism, and hope, as everyone who cares about him watches helplessly.
|Tarek puts in a heroic effort resisting the encroaching, inexorable despair, to no avail.|
This is not fair. I am not a criminal. I have committed no crime. What do they think? I’m a terrorist? There are no terrorists in here! The terrorists have money! They have support! This is just not fair. … I just want to live my life and play my music. What’s so wrong about that?
Similar phrases ring throughout the film. “He did nothing wrong.” “It's not fair.”
However on-the-nose the dialog sounds, the characters make a valid point with which I agree completely. An intransigent, rapacious, acquisitive, Kafkaesque system has steamrolled right over a life he spent years building for himself, even though he poses no threat to anyone. The detainment center itself, filled with maybe a few genuine criminals amongst an anonymous horde of erstwhile seekers of a better live, stands testament to tacit American consent to the erosion of freedom and civil rights in pursuit of even a transitory feeling of security. The real threats to national security stay in black sites and offshore detention facilities; Tarek’s facility functions as a mere holding pen for scapegoats.
Tarek’s incarceration has an interesting effect on the film itself; although he remains in the story, he becomes an unseen character for much of it. We've spent the first act getting to know him in the present, and the later parts of the film now get into his past as remembered by his loving girlfriend and mother. Hearing their recollections of him only makes Tarek seem all the more likeable and, more importantly, human.
|Notice how the door frames separate the entire worlds of Walter and Zainab.|
Despite her clear reservations, Zainab ultimately opens up to Walter, as Tarek’s arrest forces her to make painful confessions and allows her to come to appreciate Walter’s genuine desire to help her and Tarek.
|Hiam Abbass’ woebegone, careworn face and intelligent eyes say so much more than her words.|
In Mouna, we see another positive Arab character, a mother who loves and worries about her son and has to cope with seeing one of her fears realized. As a Syrian immigrant—whose husband spent several years in jail for a newspaper piece he wrote—Mouna has lived too long and seen too much to match her son’s passion and optimism. Abbass, who grew up in a Muslim family in Israel, perfectly conveys Mouna’s maternal anxieties, pertinacity, and guilt, especially as we learn later in the film about Mouna’s own cross to bear.
Mouna ultimately serves two purposes to the story. First, her memories of Syria allow her to draw parallels between her husband’s imprisonment and her son’s plight. Second, she identifies and sympathizes with Walter’s need to find meaning in life after losing a spouse.
|Walter Vale looks like he attends insurance seminars for fun or writes literary analyses of phone books. But like every other character in this film, more exists than what we see on the surface.|
Themes & Motifs
|The opening shot (obviously).|
In fact, in the first act, we come to see Walter as coasting through life—“just killing time,” as Peter Cushing famously said. His body language for much of it seems unemotional and semi-apathetic.
|The closing shot (also obviously).|
|Walter tries and fails to care about his piano lesson.|
|McCarthy swears up and down he didn't insert flag imagery to make any kind of political statement… although it really doesn't matter now.|
Flag imagery recurs in the film as well (such as in the mural image further up). McCarthy uses images of the American flag to remind us of what we tacitly accept by tolerating such dehumanizing treatment of any residents, with or without papers.
|Walter would make an awful home invader.|
|Walter looking distinctly alone even on a crowded NYC street. (Incidentally, the back of Thomas McCarthy’s head cameos in this shot as the guy wearing the hat!)|
|Walter starts to look less alone as he eats with his new friends.|
|As an introvert, I can testify that you’ll know if an introvert likes you if s/he feels comfortable eating around you.|
Food and drink show up again as a motif several other times. At separate points in the film, Mouna drinks tea with Zainab and eats with Walter, showing her growing relationship with both. Notably, Zainab and Walter never eat together without Tarek around; their mutual desire to help Tarek forms the entirety of their relationship.
|Walter’s first real smile of the movie as Tarek teaches him to play the djembe.|
|Tarek still tests Walter on his rhythm. No adversity can purge Tarek's passion for music.|
|Walter's deceased wife and a collection of her piano recordings.|
The exotic, visceral djembe comes to symbolizes Walter’s life in the now, as opposed to the old, angular, dusty grand piano representing his past, to which he mentally chained himself in remembrance of his wife. The djembe clearly brings out Walter’s first taste of genuine happiness in years. We even see this in Walter’s discovery of the music of Tarek’s idol, Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, the sound of which infuses Walter’s music with the vigor that had always eluded him on the piano.
Richard Jenkins, for his part, believes that Walter takes to the djembe because as someone who lives and thinks very linearly, the djembe represents a sort of improvisatory deviation. The djembe, then, represents Walter’s evolving worldview as he gets to know Tarek and learns to “see” the world as he hadn’t before.
|The narrowed focus helps us feel the confinement of Walter’s Imprisonment by Conference.|
|Richard Jenkins accurately conveys how much a djembe's players hands must hurt after a while!|
|I love this shot and its composition. The four “layers” of the background make for a wonderful effect.|
In a similar show of Walter’s wall of isolation breaking down, we have this shot of the two main characters walking together alongside Sheep Meadow. McCarthy used shots like this in The Station Agent as well—wide angle shots of friends walking together in a gorgeous, sprawling landscape. In this way, he conveys the growing affinity between the characters while at the same time showing off his eye for semi-urban photography.
Throughout the film, Jan Kaczmarek's lambent, airy score subtly complements the diegetic Afrobeat music. Although the two sources of music (alongside the classical piano pieces played diegetically, posthumously off Katharine's CD), the former serves the movie by slowing our pulse down and exhorting us to appreciate the characterization and cinematography, while the latter engages us in the plot and helps us gain an understanding of Tarek's world and personality.
Overall, I strongly recommend this film and all of McCarthy's other works. I actually loved The Station Agent and Win Win even more than I loved this picture (and considering the length of this post, I think that says a lot)! The Station Agent makes the perfect film for unwinding after a long day. Win Win also comments on our flawed legal system and the chasm between moral right and “right” as defined therein. Above all, McCarthy's films teach us to appreciate human beings for what lies beneath the surface and to appreciate the difference new friends can make. I've seen few films with as positive a depiction of Arabs as The Visitor; I wish there existed a hundred films like it!
1 Miller, Dennis. “Twelve Million Angry Men.” The Rant Zone. NY: Harper Collins, 2001. 89. Print.
2 Pay special attention to Robert W. Goodlatte's politically loaded phrasing here. He persistently refers to undocumented residents as "criminals," when in fact illegal immigration falls under the banner of a civil violation. Tarek in this film actually gets it right when he says he hasn't committed any criminal offense. (Also notice in Goodlatte's devious words the appeal to fear and the unsupported, implied association of undocumented immigrants with violent offenders.)
3 Premium Rush deals with illegal immigration in New York City as well, but more as a brief divagation than in The Visitor’s capacity as the backbone of the film.
4 As a pianist myself, I understand his frustration in mastering the fundamentals and proper form, but I also realize the piano has capabilities far beyond what the film symbolizes. I hope this goes without saying, but no symbol has a universal meaning across all films or necessarily even more than one film.
5 Again, from firsthand experience, I can attest that professional conferences have more to them than what we see in this film. See Cedar Rapids for a very funny and largely affectionate treatment thereof… even if it exaggerates in exactly the opposite direction.
6 Both principals studied under Mohammad Naseehu Ali, a Ghanaian-Brooklynite author and musician. Ironically, Richard Jenkins had real-life past experience as a drummer, so he actually proved more adroit on the djembe than Haaz Sleiman! (Haaz, for his part, did practice assiduously.)