Tom McCarthy has made a fair few emotionally visceral choices throughout his career. The Visitor has proven to be one of the most complex in its varied approaches to delivering catharsis.
For starters, the main character, Walter, is a man well into his fifties and yet this story is fundamentally a classic coming of age tale. It reaffirms to viewers what many of us have heard, but frequently question. Put simply, one is never too old to become a completely new and revitalized person. Now, Walter doesn’t start this film as a “bad” man: he is not necessarily problematic, and he doesn’t have any visibly troubling habits. What’s more is there is no definitive event in the film that triggers his transformation. This is key to the success of this film because most movies rely on a tragic or profound plot beat to move the character through “the threshold” of change. This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments throughout this movie that propel Walter further toward where he ends up, however he starts his transformation in small acts that are only hurried along by the other characters and events that unfurl.
Let’s go now to the other part of the film that I found exceeded any expectation I had for it. That is the cinematography and use of space in general. It may seem subtle at parts, but when it matters, the position of the frame creates the emotion that each particular moment deserves with soaring marks. When Walter arrives at his apartment in New York, we get a skewed view of him as he unlocks the door, a warning sign of the unexpected events about to happen. We also get some clear progression shots throughout. Namely, when Walter first notices the street drummers, he is far away from them; then, he is a bit closer, before finally being right next to the performers, visibly enjoying the music. This is further paid off when he actually plays with some other drummers and Tarek. The shots with the drum are so important, and their connection throughout is powerful. For instance, when Walter first sits down at the drum he is rigid and unsure of himself. In fact, when he sees Tarek, loose – even in just his underwear – and laid back playing, he is on the border of embarrassment. But then, by the third act of the movie, when Walter has to return home briefly to Connecticut, he is playing in his underwear at I’d say the most comfortable we see him in the entire film. It’s important to note, too, that in that sequence of Walter practicing the drums in his Connecticut home, a low angle is utilized with poignant articulation to finally show that Walter is in control of, and has power over, himself. The final shot of the film also includes the drum, and although the framing is fairly simple symmetrically speaking, the emotional payoff from the drumming shots leading up to this one is wonderfully orchestrated.
One last note I’d like to make about this movie: A friend posed a query to his Facebook feed recently. He asked folks to name films in which the villain ultimately claimed victory. Most of the responses were expected – The Dark Knight, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith – however, when I read it, the only film that came to mind was Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor. It may not seem like an obvious choice, but films like this often have a silent character that seems to win in the end. In this movie in particular, it is the broken American immigration system. And don’t get it wrong, it is most certainly the villain in this story. And ultimately…it wins! Which I believe is brilliantly encompassed by a shot toward the end of the movie when Mouna walks off to get on her flight and the shot tilts up to a giant American flag as it racks out of focus, making a blurry transition to the next shot. It’s certainly true that Walter triumphs in becoming a freer and more self-confident man – in that sense, he won in the end. However, Tarek is deported, Zainab is left without direction, and Mouna is on her way back to Syria knowing she can never return to America. All of this heartache is because of the confusion in the American immigration system that was left behind after the events of 9/11.
The Visitor is emblematic of what Tom McCarthy seems to be so tremendous at doing in all of his works. This film is able to compress one man’s personal journey with a fully realized commentary on a singular societal problem without being preachy or obvious. McCarthy is the type of filmmaker that truly believes in the viewers intelligence and doesn’t waste time patronizing his audience. I would strongly recommend this film, as well as this man’s entire filmography.