Disillusioned Professor Comes to Grips with ‘The Visitor’


He has the perfect name and the ideal job for portraying upper-middle-class disillusionment. Walter Vale is a literature professor at a reputable university in the Northeast. He’s no longer capable of enduring day-to-day encounters with students, and he’s embarked on a sabbatical during which he only pretends to be writing his next book. Will those who see the film The Visitor be able to relate to Walter’s dysphoric existence? Yes, because the role is performed by Richard Jenkins.

“Richard who?” The folks at Back Stage West must have been thinking the same thing. In this week’s issue, Jenelle Riley describes how a “blue-collar actor” like Jenkins (who’s never played a lead role in television or film) can lead in every scene of a low-budget indie film and launch it to nationwide screening. When BSW arrived in today’s mail, I was pleased to see a cover story about this actor, and about this film.

I saw The Visitor when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. I recognized Jenkins, but couldn’t place him. The Riley essay explains why. But I liked him, and I liked this film because of him. He was funny, in that way that only the wearing malaise of life experience can make a thoughtful person funny. When the film ended, writer-director Tom McCarthy fielded questions from the audience. He was good. But Richard Jenkins stole the show.

This film is supposed to be about how injustices can accrue in the treatment of illegal immigrants. It could even be said that The Visitor is making an argument that at least some illegal immigrants should be granted amnesty. Many viewers will find themselves reflecting on this possibility. But the movie is just as much about how a man like Walter can get a new lease of life through his encounter with the unexpected, even if things still don’t turn out the way he would like.

The film begins and ends brilliantly. Walter is a serious man in a serious funk, who teaches us to lighten up a little. The Visitor opens April 11 in a platform release (that is, in a handful of theaters to generate buzz). This is one I’ll be seeing again.

Footnote: You’ll enjoy this film more if you don’t see the trailer first.

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