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Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Visitor

There's something a little disingenuous about the hosannas from critics that have accompanied Richard Jenkins's performance in The Visitor. Within the deserved acclaim for the veteran actor there is a note of self-congratulation on the part of the critic. Every review says something about Jenkins "finally" getting the chance he deserves, or some similar thought. As though all these years the critics where shouting from the rafters that Jenkins was one of the greatest actors of his generation, and that the studios were stupid for not casting him as the lead in their films.

Richard Jenkins isn't a star, but this film wouldn't work if he was one. No star could play a role like Walter Vale, a college professor who befriends illegal immigrants he finds squatting in his apartment. The film only works if you're curious about who Vale is, if you have to study his every movement and listen to everything he says in order to figure out why you're watching a movie about him.

You're watching because Jenkins and the director manage to draw you into the film right from the beginning. Walter Vale is our sole focus and Jenkins has the tough job of creating him from scratch. This effort is possible because the viewer brings no presumptions into the movie because of it's star.

The script isn't great, most of the events flow quite naturally from each other and the movie's political message (while striking a note of humanitarianism) is a little too strong in support of illegal immigrants. The movie does handle the ending very well, creating a wonderful final image which lingers after the movie is over.

The actors portraying the immigrants are all fine in their performances, but the strength of this film is the Oscar-nominated performance of it's non-star star. Every tentative movement Jenkins makes, every awkward toe-tap to the African drums, every modulated expression of emotion is Vale's.

This movie tells a small story, and even though it is an unlikely one, the film does a lot toward making us believe that the film's premise could actually happen. Jenkins performance merits this film an 8.2 out of 10.

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