The Visitor/ Frozen River- Two Small Timely Stories and Their Oscar-Nominated Stars

Two films got surprise lead acting nods for Oscars in the recently announced nominations: The Visitor, starring Richard Jenkins, and Frozen River, starring Melissa Leo. I recommend seeking both of these out, since they are well-made and timely stories told without the usual flashy acting from big-name celebrities. They’re subtly crafted characters, and they singlehandedly carry their films in an old-fashioned way. These aren’t biopics where the resemblances astound you, or blow-out dramas where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth. These are real people who deal with very pertinent issues we all face today, and in the end, perhaps depictions such as these are the most worthy of awards—because they go so far out of their way to not ask for them.

Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor stars Richard Jenkins as Walter, a professor at Connecticut College who is not doing too much with his life, yet constantly tells people he is busy writing a book which we never see. He goes to New York reluctantly to present a paper he co-authored (but did not write a word of), and finds a couple living in his apartment, a Syrian man named Tarek and his Senegalese girlfriend. Since they have nowhere to go, he allows them to stay for a bit. Perhaps the plot description gets predictable here, but they teach him ways to enjoy his life, and he helps them deal with the threat of a looming deportation. Still, I found the ways in which the characters evolved to be natural, not predictable. Tarek teaches Walter, who has wanted to play the piano for a long time, how to play the djembe. Watching Walter’s progress as a drummer throughout the film is the type of simple joy this film provides yet you will find unexplainable when recommending this film to friends—the final image of the film creates one of the most satisfying endings to a film in recent years. Plus, the arrival of Tarek’s mother, played with dignity and a gentle grace by Hiam Abbass, shows Walter yet another side of these people who he did not understand a mere ten days earlier.

At a time when immigration is a hot-button topic, this film deals with it in a way that does not take sides, it simply exists as a present dilemma in the lives of the character. No character ever says that Tarek does the right thing by sneaking into the country, but everyone sees the injustice in the way he and the people he loves are treated, especially Walter. On occasion the film gets mildly preachy, but it never sinks too low into clichéd speechifying. I never saw McCarthy’s first film, The Station Agent, but heard terrific things, and now I want to immediately seek it out. And while Jenkins’s performance doesn’t have the boom of Langella’s Nixon or the moving comeback arc of Rourke’s Randy the Ram, I would be overjoyed to see a performance like this get the credit it deserves, and perhaps help influence filmmakers to go back to creating original and deeply human characters rather than the standard melodramatic and/or biopic fare we are usually treated with.

The economy is what hangs over the head of Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, a fabulous debut feature film that does not contain any stylistic flairs or noteworthy directorial signatures, but simply contains the best quality of all—a thrilling story told perfectly. Ray (Melissa Leo) is a mother of two living in extreme poverty in upstate New York. She works part-time at the local dollar store, because that’s all that is available to her. Her family eats popcorn for dinner, while the father is absent, on yet another of his runs to Atlantic City in which he takes much of Ray’s money to gamble away. She encounters Lila (Misty Upshaw) by chance, and is drawn into the world of smuggling illegals into the country by driving over a frozen river located in neutral borderless territory belonging to the Mohawk Indian tribe. While Ray gets away with it at first, looming bill deadlines and suspicious police officers wait in the wings.

Ray is a rare breed of impoverished characters that obtain multiple dimensions—she isn’t simply a noble soul who encountered hard times, or a lazy leech off of government money. She is as responsible as she can be, and she refuses to let her 15-year-old son get a job because she insists he finish his education. However, she also lies constantly to people, including her sons, in order to obtain this illegal money under the guise of normalcy. Melissa Leo is this character, and while I have not seen Rachel Getting Married yet, Leo immediately is my frontrunner for Best Actress this year. Leo is able to convey the enormous stresses of poverty without any big “woe is me, I’m so poor” scene—on the contrary, she remains surprisingly cool. Hunt’s story appears to have been shot with a digital camera, which gives the film close to a documentary feel, with little visible hair and makeup, and lighting that appears to be natural for the most part. The natural vibe is perfect—a glossy film stock with fancy lighting would have been all wrong for this story. This movie also deals with immigration in a less direct but perhaps more affecting manner than The Visitor. Both of these films, humble indie projects led by subtle character studies, contain more heart and thrills than many of the other nominated films– seek them out on DVD before you immediately side with Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie this Oscar season.

Both films:

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~ by russellhainline on January 27, 2009.

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