Directed By: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman, Danni Gurira
Walter has been coasting for years. Work forces him to return to New York City and an apartment he has not seen in years. Instead of a musty,cold flat he finds fresh flowers and a beautiful young woman in his bath. No it’s not a meet cute, it’s not that kind of movie. Turns out someone, unbeknownst to him, has rented his apartment to a young immigrant couple. Once Tarek and Zaineb understand that Walter is in fact the owner of the apartment they prepare to leave and in the only false note of the movie Walter offers to let them stay until they can find another place.
Walter, played by Richard Jenkins is a professor of economics in Connecticut. He’s phoning in lectures and recycling syllabi. His department head informs Walter that he has to present a paper he has co-authored at NYU. Walter tries to weasel out by confiding that he really didn’t have anything to do with the paper other than lend his name. This doesn’t gain him any sympathy. So Walter heads toward New York City and an apartment he has kept in the city but not visited in several years. Instead of finding a dusty, dank, unlived in place he notices fresh flowers and some objects that do not belong, including Danai Gurira in her film debut, in his bathtub. Danai plays Zaineb half of the couple that is squatting in his apartment. Tarek, played by Haaz Sleiman, the other half of the couple shortly introduces himself to Walter when he slams him against the wall. Walter quickly explains that this is his apartment. A fact that Tarek and Zaineb accept a little quickly unless they suspected that something was not quite on the up and up about their arrangements. They gather their things and leave, but Walter follows them after he notices a photo they left behind. Upon catching up with them something makes Walter offer to let them stay until they can make other arrangements. The movie is asking a lot for you to get over the fact that Walter, a reserved individual who has shunned human interaction in every scene we have seen him in to this point would open up his life to two complete strangers who have been staying in his apartment illicitly. As improbable as this scenario sounds the actors manage to sell it, you really only question it if you sit and think about it. It’s a minor quibble and easily forgiven because everything else in the movie feels completely natural.
Tarek is a drummer and Walter is strangely drawn to his instrument, the djembe, an African drum. After catching Walter trying it out Tarek offers to teach Walter how to play. Walter awkwardly accepts. Through the music a friendship starts to develop between Walter and Tarek. Soon Walter is going along with Tarek to gigs and participating in a drum circle in Washington Park. The friendship is just starting to develop when there is a misunderstanding in the subway and Tarek is arrested for jumping a turnstile. Walter returns to the apartment and explains to Zaineb that it is all a misunderstanding that he has gone to the Precinct Station and given a statement, that Tarek should be released that night. Zaineb then informs Walter something he should have figured out from the beginning. That Tarek and Zaineb are illegal aliens. In light of his immigration status Tarek is transferred to a detention center while his status can be determined. Walter hires an immigration lawyer and is doing what he can, but the Kafkaesque nature of immigration enforcement means that Tarek is stuck in limbo. A few days after Tarek’s detention Walter hears a knock on his door, he answers it to find a striking woman who it turns out is Tarek’s mother. She has not heard from her son in five days and has intuited that something is wrong.
Its fun watching Walter come out of his shell and this leads to several humorous moments, but this is not a comedy. It’s easy to become attached to these characters. The only bad guy in the movie is a near faceless bureaucracy. The film does have some political points to score but it goes about this business subtly, letting the natural unfolding of the story make the points, not by preaching at you or pounding you over the head. The pacing is relaxed, not afraid to linger a moment or two where needed, but it’s lean with nothing extraneous in it’s one hundred and four minutes. The direction is clean and efficient, highlighting the emotion of scenes but never calling attention to itself. The script is great the acting amazing and the score by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek fits perfectly. In short this is a wonderful movie.
The movie gives you a choice of viewing it in wide screen or full screen format. The transfer is near flawless. I never noticed any artifacts like aliasing, moiré, or blooming reds. Some of the dark interior scenes contained a hint of grain in the backgrounds but the subjects were always detailed nicely. The blacks were all crisp and never grayed out.
Editor’s Note: Blu-Ray: Anchor Bay also provided the film on Blu-Ray and it looks quite good. The film is presented in its original 1:85:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. Teh washed out colors look great and purposeful in this release and detail is often really deep. The only time detail drops a little is during dimmer scenes. Even then though the 1080p video looks better than you’d expect. This may not be the first film you’d think of as a must buy on Blu-Ray but the image is really strong. If you have the choice wouldn’t you want the best?
The audio is presented in Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound with English subtitles. The dialog is always clear and well mixed with the wonderful score. I never noticed any distortion or level problems or anything else that would interfere with the sound.
Editor’s Note: Blu-Ray: The audio here is well presented in 24 bit PCM and in Dolby Digital 5.1 but don’t expect a demo disc for your home theater. This is a dialogue driven film so there’s not much chance for impressive surround speaker usage. Often all of the speakers are utilized but in a very subtle way. Unfortunately with all of the opportunites for sub woofer to get used it just never does. Dialogue, score, and ambient sounds are well mixed throughout the Blu-Ray.
Blu-Ray Audio Score 7/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The DVD is packaged in a standard Amaray DVD case with a cardboard slipcover. The artwork is attractive and makes good use of iconic scenes from the movie. The cover artwork and color palette are paralleled with the DVD menus which are well laid out and easy to navigate. There is not a large amount of bonus material but it is all worth watching. There are some deleted scenes and two featurettes, one about the djembe, the African drum featured in the movie and one about the movie itself. The audio commentary with Tom McCarthy and Richard Jenkins is informative and entertaining.
I enjoyed the movie much more than I expected. In the DVD case was a placard with some immigration statistics and an entreaty for you to sign a Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the U.N. After seeing this I steeled myself for a hundred and four minutes of being preached to. As I mentioned earlier that is not what this movie does. It simply tells an engrossing story about characters I came to really feel something for. One point that the movie really drove home for me was how badly the system we use to determine who gets to stay in the country and who has to leave is implemented, it should not take years of wandering through a bureaucratic nightmare to determine whether an individual should be allowed to stay or have to leave. Whether you lean towards “open the gates” or “kick ’em out” the Kafkaesque horror currently in place serves no one except possibly itself. Forget all that though. Just remember that this is a great character driven movie with a bunch of wonderful performances, that’s all you really need to know.
Overall (Not an Average) 8/10
The Movie 9/10
The Video 8/10
The Audio 8/10 Blu-Ray 7/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 7/10
Overall (Not an Average) 8/10