It’s been five years since actor Tom McCarthy debuted as a writer/director with The Station Agent, a deft, unexpected, and almost literary small film. In some ways, it would be hard to imagine a more obviously Xeroxed sophomore effort.
Here, again, is the story of three unlikely people thrown together after death and exile have left each one of them balanced between awful vulnerability and exacting need. Here, again, the context is resolved through music and difficult lessons that bridge the dissimilar in their one constant, the wound of being human in their humanity. Here, again, the storytelling borders on the elliptical, much is withheld until some kind of bond becomes inevitable, then GUSH! His style is not as gorgeously mannered as David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls), but aesthetic flourishes are put forth: It’s subtle enough to suggest the sublime and pictorial enough to seem beautiful.
On the other hand, The Visitor could hardly be more opposite to The Station Agent. The story line is sitcom trite: A grieving professor comes to an apartment he keeps in Manhattan (that’s a damned good professor’s salary, by the way) only to find two ethnic interlopers camped out there-some kind of scam worked by a slimy third party. Instead of shooting them, he (guess what?) gets involved in their struggles against the woeful American immigration bureaucracy. I’m not giving too much away because you’d need to be blind and three years old not to guess the story arc from the first moment the prof surprises a naked African woman in his bath. The rest is a withered form of white man’s burden-or, at best, noblesse oblige.
In its defense, The Visitor ends with an erotic rush of warmth that seems to melt all the trite coyness of McCarthy’s storytelling, overcoming the almost aggressively dull casting of bland Richard Jenkins, whose face is probably meant to be misleading. But we’ve all seen enough movies to know that his tepid life will be lit soon by a pretty face. Only McCarthy seems surprised by his own character’s inevitable redemption.