Film Length: 104 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (mistakenly listed on the jacket as 2:35:1)
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DD 5.1 (640 kbps); English PCM 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: April 11, 2008
Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 8, 2008
Richard Jenkins is one of the finest actors in America, but his name isn't widely known. Like
many great character actors, he works steadily but you don't notice him, because you never see
him acting. He just shows up in a film or TV show and is whatever character the story needs him
to be, whether it's the stoic FBI director in The Kingdom or the love-sick health club manager in
Burn After Reading. That kind of steady quality takes talent, discipline and hard work.
Every so often a great career actor like Jenkins gets a role that shows you just how much he can
do. It happened with the FBI agent coming out of the closet in Flirting With Disaster. It
happened again with his five seasons as the apparition of Nate Fisher, Sr. on Six Feet Under. And
then, at the age of 60, someone finally wrote Richard Jenkins a leading role.
The someone is Tom McCarthy, whose first film, The Station Agent, also featured an unlikely
leading man, the 4' 5" Peter Dinklage. After much success at film festivals, The Station Agent did
well enough in theaters that the U.S. State Department invited McCarthy to take the film to the
Middle East as part of a cultural outreach program. While there, McCarthy was struck by how
little he knew about that part of the world, and he was impressed by the passion of the artists he
met. These thoughts ultimately collided with a script he'd been developing about an aging
college professor. The result was The Visitor.
Richard Jenkins as Walter and Hiam Abbass as Mouna in The Visitor
Walter Vale is a professor teaching the economics of emerging countries at a Connecticut
college. He's a widower who lives a quiet life alone in a large house. As the film opens, we see
him taking a piano lesson from a teacher who informs him, as diplomatically as possible, that it
is difficult to learn an instrument at Walter's age, especially when you have no natural talent.
Walter receives this news with little reaction, which is how he appears to deal with everything in
One day, Walter is told that he must go to New York to present a paper on which he is listed as
co-author. Though he resists, he is left with no choice; so he drives down from Connecticut and
carries his suitcase into the small apartment he still keeps in Manhattan but has not visited for
To Walter's shock, the apartment is not empty. A young couple, Tarek from Syria and his
girlfriend Zainab from Senegal, are living there, believing that they have taken a legitimate
sublet. They quickly realize that they have been the victims of a swindle and pack to leave,
fearing that Walter will call the police. Walter, shaken though he is, has no intention of doing so.
After much hesitation on both sides, he invites them to stay.
Tarek is a musician. His instrument is the djembe (pronounced "JEM-bay"), an African drum.
For reasons he can't explain, Walter is fascinated by it, as he is by the drummers in Washington
Square Park that he passes on the way to and from the conference he is in New York to attend.
When he thinks no one is around, Walter tries his hand at Tarek's djembe. Before long, Tarek is
giving him lessons and leading him on a tour of Manhattan's djembe culture.
It is on one of these tours that Tarek is arrested in the subway in a simple misunderstanding that
would be cleared up in no time for a U.S. citizen. But Tarek is an illegal alien, and he is
immediately transferred to a detention facility in Queens. The scene in which Walter must tell
Zainab what has happened is one of the saddest in the film.
Now Walter has entered truly unfamiliar terrain. Because Zainab herself is an illegal, she cannot
risk going to see Tarek, and Walter becomes his only visitor (this is one of the title's many
meanings). Indeed, Walter is literally Tarek's lifeline to the world outside.
The situation only becomes more complicated when Tarek's mother, Mouna, appears on
Walter's doorstep. A woman of beauty and dignity, Mouna is the widow of a Syrian journalist
who died after years of imprisonment by his own government. Walter, never a people person, is
now the one who must perform the introduction between Mouna and Zainab ("She's very black!"
Mouna mutters to Walter, upon first seeing Zainab). And it's Walter who must shuttle back and
forth between Tarek, who insists that Mouna return home, and Mouna who says, in a manner
permitting no argument, that she will not leave.
McCarthy is much too fine a filmmaker to let The Visitor descend into either tear-jerking
melodrama or Hollywood fairytale. Events play out much as they probably would in real life
(with one or two surprises). But to leave it at that is to give short shrift to the film's richness of
incident, nuance and humor - the kind of texture that lends itself to multiple viewings. It was
only on a second viewing, for example, that I fully appreciated the exchanges between Mouna
and the Lebanese waiter who speaks to her in Arabic at the coffeeshop where she waits while
Walter visits Tarek. Indeed, there is hardly a conversation in The Visitor that isn't fraught with
things unsaid. That is a tribute both to McCarthy's script and to the ability of Richard Jenkins
and the rest of the talented cast to convey so much between the lines.
When the film was released, some reviews complained (and I've seen comments at IMDb that do
more than complain) that the film is a polemic against U.S. immigration policy. That is nonsense,
and it says more about the speaker than the film. The situation of illegal aliens is part of the
film's landscape, but The Visitor is a film about unexpected turns in life's path and unlikely
connections that change people's lives. McCarthy and his production team did extensive research
on detention facilities for the sake of accuracy, but if they had wanted to do an exposé, the film
would have followed Tarek inside detention. It does not. The film remains with Walter, and we
experience everything from his point of view. Even in a scene where Walter loses his temper at a
guard, he's not mounting a soapbox for anyone. He can barely get out an articulate sentence.
Jenkins' performance is extraordinary here, as he embodies the sheer physical trauma when a
deeply personal anger erupts from a man who has spent years closing himself off from others. He
even shows us the part of Walter that's standing to one side marveling, "Can this really be me?
Am I really doing this?"
The Visitor ends as it began: with Walter. But he is in a place and a situation where neither he
nor we would have imagined him at the start of the film. No longer a visitor to his own life, he is
exuberantly and passionately engaged in something important to him. He is present. He is alive.
It is a strange and beautiful sight.
Contrary to the listing on the keepcase jacket, The Visitor was framed at 1.85:1, and it is so
presented on this Blu-ray. The transfer is excellent and fully utilizes the ability of Blu-ray to
produce a film-like image, but left me explain what I mean by that here.
This is not an eye-candy film, and it's not a film with images that "pop". It's a low-budget film
shot, for the most part, in real locations. Even the apartment interiors were filmed in a real
apartment. McCarthy and his cinematographer were clearly going for a natural look, in keeping
with the film's life-sized characters. So this is not the stylized New York City that you'd see in a
Woody Allen film (when he still filmed here) or even in Sex and the City. This is a New York
City that looks very much like the one that those of us who live here see when we walk the
streets. This look was striking when I saw the film projected in a theater, and the Blu-ray
maintains the look and the essential detail. Interiors tend to be dark, because there was not much
artificial lighting, but blacks are sufficiently solid that you can always make out the detail. The
brightly lit detention center (one of the few sets that had to be constructed) provides a harsh and
unfriendly contrast, and it comes through strongly.
The detail of the outdoor scenes is a treat. Alert viewers will notice that there are American flags
everywhere, and those who think the film is a polemic take that as evidence that McCarthy was
making an ironic point. You can take it from me: That's how New York has looked ever since
9/11. And even if McCarthy had wanted to dress a few city blocks with extra flags (or anything
else), there's no way he could have done it on this film's budget. I've seen what it takes to
control even one relatively quiet city block in Manhattan (Gossip Girl recently took over mine),
and you need big bucks.
I listened to the PCM 5.1 track, which is terrific. The mix is front-centered, with emphasis on the
dialogue. The surrounds are used sparingly for ambience and to reinforce the musical score,
which is lovely. The score by turns echoes Walter's taste in classical music and the rhythmic
influence of Tarek's djembe. And, of course, during the actual djembe performances by various
musicians, the music is critical and all the speakers come alive
A small collection, but a good one. All video is in hi-def.
Commentary by Tom McCarthy and Richard Jenkins. McCarthy does most of the
talking. Although Jenkins chimes in from time to time, it's clear that he's a doer, not a talker.
McCarthy talks less about the genesis of the project than about the practical issues of locations
and time constraints. He also points out crew and family members who appeared in the film and
identifies notable New York theater actors who he was able to persuade to show up for a day or
two to play supporting roles, such as Walter's piano teacher, the colleague who sends him to
New York, a neighbor in the apartment building, and a customer who buys a piece of jewelry
from Zainab's flea market stall. McCarthy also chuckles over some of the questions he's been
asked about "political" messages in the film (including the ubiquitous flags mentioned above).
Deleted scenes (w/optional commentary) (4:48). There are four brief deleted scenes.
Even without listening to McCarthy's commentary, you can tell that they were deleted for pacing,
and rightly so. They are nevertheless entertaining.
An Inside Look at THE VISITOR (4:48). A short making-of featuring interviews with
McCarthy, Jenkins, Danai Gurira (Zainab) and Haaz Sleiman (Tarek). One wishes it were longer
only because it sounds like, with a good interviewer, all of these subjects could be prompted to offer
additional worthwhile comments.
Playing the Djembe (7:48). An introduction to the film's signature instrument, featuring
Muhammad Naseehu Ali, who coached the actors and whose band performs in the film
Trailer. There are probably people who think they've seen The Visitor after seeing the
trailer. While the trailer does sketch out the key story elements, the film itself is much richer and
more complex than the trailer suggests. For me, the key test is whether a film continues to
surprise on repeat viewings. This one does.
While writing this review, I looked at the list of Oscar nominees for best actor since 2000. I've
seen every nominated performance, and Richard Jenkins' work in The Visitor is the equal of any
of them. There was Oscar buzz when the film was first released, but by year's end it will have
been eclipsed by newer films with bigger marketing campaigns and flashier performances. The
essence of craftsmanship like Jenkins' is that it appears effortless. That's why some of the best
actors in the world go their whole careers without major awards. The work itself is their
satisfaction. Jenkins has said that he waited his whole career for a role like Walter Vale. Some
things are worth the wait.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (PCM decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
Velodyne HGS-10 sub