Audiences find room for 'The Visitor'

The Baltimore Sun

The mainstream media usually cover the first three positions in the box-office top 10: the places where blockbusters and big-star vehicles reside. Generating just as much excitement among movie-lovers these days is the No. 10 slot.

For two weeks in a row, a $4 million movie has filled it without the help of marquee names or special effects. This film broke into the list seven weeks after its premiere, on the strength of that elusive commodity, word of mouth. It's The Visitor, a poignant, humorous and wonder-filled character study that manages, in 90 minutes, to flesh out E.M. Forster's dictum, "Only connect."

Released by fledgling Overture Films and directed by Tom McCarthy -- the writer-director of The Station Agent (2003) and the actor who played Scott Templeton in The Wire -- The Visitor charts the emotional reawakening of a Connecticut college professor. At his old apartment in Manhattan, he bonds in unexpected ways with a young couple -- a man from Syria, a woman from Senegal -- as well as the man's mother.

In Baltimore, the movie began its run at the Harbor East, and in ensuing weeks played there and at the Rotunda simultaneously. It closed at those theaters Thursday, but opened the next day at the Charles -- marking the first clean sweep of all three Baltimore art houses by any movie still in its first-run national release.

Over the phone from New York on Wednesday, McCarthy confessed, "You know it's funny: After every holiday weekend I make a catch-up call with Overture. Those things can be not so wonderful, but on this film they've been successful. You could say I am pleasantly surprised. It's not that me and everyone at Overture didn't have confidence in The Visitor: We all love it.

"But you know how difficult it is to go up against summer blockbusters when you don't have a huge advertising campaign and you're not running into posters and seeing commercials morning, noon and night. We've had a groundswell in the major cities, and we're trying to see how far we can go with it.

"Sometimes the science of theater patterns seems like astrophysics to me. What's exciting is that we've set ourselves up so we're the first choice for anyone who doesn't want to see a summer blockbuster. And how many blockbusters can you see in a row? After Indiana Jones and Iron Man, you may need something else. And a lot of people think we're your best option."

McCarthy says he's heard again and again from viewers who get excited over The Visitor because it feels real -- and it allows them to invest in characters in a short period of time. "It does what great television series do," says McCarthy, "get people to care about the characters and feel they have to talk about it with other people because it isn't easy to relay what the movie is about. That's what contributes to the strong word of mouth."

The writer-director and actor uses that TV comparison with reason: he was making his promotional tour for The Visitor around the same time as The Wire's finale.

As a key player in that show's last season, he discovered "so many people were bummed that it was over. They had grown used to hanging out with these characters, as if they were friends or family members -- in the case of The Wire, dysfunctional family members. People feel they got to know them.

"That's what's going on with The Visitor. After every screening on the road I would do Q and As, and people would ask what happened to the characters, would they see each other again. It was as if they thought I was J.K. Rowling and The Visitor was Harry Potter, and there was another book I was ready to put out."

Still, McCarthy wanted to make The Visitor as a theatrical movie rather than a Showtime or HBO film.

"When we talk about why The Visitor works, we're getting at the core of the cinema: It's the special feeling of being alone in the dark of the theater -- and even if you're with someone, in a way you are alone -- with characters who are both lifelike and bigger than life. How many quiet places are left in our lives any more? Even if you're at home watching a movie on TV, the kids may be crying and the Blackberry or computer humming along.

"That's why you want as many people as possible to see your movie in a theater. As a moviemaker, you get the chance to cast a little spell, and as a moviegoer, it's like taking a little trip, getting away for a few hours. TV, though satisfying, just physically can't provide the same experience."

McCarthy has faith that audiences pick up on the emotional completeness of movies made to fulfill a personal and unique vision. "You can just feel when a filmmaker hasn't been forced to serve a lot of masters -- when he's writing and directing to tell exactly the story that feels right to him, not something to fit an assembly line or a marketing angle.

"That's another reason we're getting such positive feedback. If you go out for a hamburger, you're probably not going to talk about it. But if you go out to a cool little restaurant with a three-piece jazz band, and you eat something really interesting, and the waiter is really cool -- you talk about that."

One aspect of audience response to The Visitor that especially gratified McCarthy was the moviegoers' willingness to embrace conflicting emotions.

"The Visitor was different than The Station Agent -- emotionally, a little more raw. People have said afterwards they haven't cried like that at a movie before, and none of us knew whether the audiences wanted to be moved in that way. But it turns out they like what this movie provides -- a variety of emotion. You don't have to keep them laughing all the way through."

Sometimes, when you don't, you win tears as well as laughter -- and applause.

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