Indie director Tom McCarthy thinks he got the better part of the deal when the State Department invited him to take “The Station Agent,” his much-honored first film, to the Middle East as part of an outreach program.
“I think the idea was, ‘Let’s go share our culture with people who might not have access to anything like this,’” he hypothesizes, with the slightest edge of mock-condescension, “And really, the reverse happened — I learned so much from the rich culture there, I probably got far more out of it than they did.”
The major benefit among many was being inspired to make his second film, “The Visitor.”
Before he directed, McCarthy began his career in improv comedy before shifting to dramatic theater. “I was getting fed up with everything having to have a punchline,” he recalls.
The great success of “The Station Agent,” which won Sundance and Independent Spirit awards, has not meant abandoning his acting; he recently appeared in the final season of HBO’s “The Wire.”
Although the New Jersey native had a happy childhood in “a big close family,” and displays a prodigious social ease, as a director McCarthy finds himself drawn to the stories of loners, misfits and outcasts.
“There’s a part of me that’s like that,” McCarthy says, “even though I’ve been very lucky, I’ve been supported — I feel alone at times, I can feel that in part of me.”
Widower Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, “Six Feet Under”), “The Visitor’s” 60ish protagonist, is certainly profoundly alone, emotionally walled-in, until a chance connection with an immigrant Syrian-Senegalese couple transfigures the professor’s life. By way of his Syrian friend, Walter becomes enchanted with the West African djembe drum. And via the communion of the drum — the instrument most like the human heartbeat — his heart, like any new lover’s, opens to the world.
“As a joke,” McCarthy says, “my [director of photography] created a classic love montage with Walter and the drums, from his first shy glance to the score swelling to a glorious crescendo, etc.”
But the movie is not yet another story about a repressed white male warming himself at the hearth of a more “authentic” culture: As Walter and his undocumented visitors become entangled in the harsh absurdities of the U.S. immigration system, McCarthy exposes some of the darker corners of post-9/11 politics, and their human cost.
McCarthy’s first play, “The Killing Act,” was a prescient examination of the American cult and culture of celebrity. As a film director, he continues his concerns with what might be termed universal-but-peculiarly-American themes: alienation and identity, belonging and community.
With “The Visitor,” he is well on his way to joining the ranks of quintessential American directors.
Starring Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira
Written and directed by Tom McCarthy
Running time 1 hour 48 minutes