In my review of The Butler a few weeks ago, I praised Lee Daniels as one director who is making the best American films today. He is but one of many, but when I'm talking about American in the sense of Daniels' films, I'm thinking about America the myth. His films deal with the story of America and their underside. But before I was watching Daniels' films there is another director who has made three perfect films about American people, Thomas McCarthy.
I was thinking about McCarthy earlier this week because I'm excited at the prospect of him coaxing another dramatic performance out of Adam Sandler. To date, McCarthy has directed only three movies - The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. In addition to being a huge fan of dramatic Sandler. McCarthy is able to coax career-high performances out of people who are already excellent. Peter Dinklage came into view thanks to his quiet and wounded performance in The Station Agent long before he was grinning and slapping children around on Game of Thrones. Even Paul Giamatti, a man who can go as big or small as required, gave a beautifully complicated performance in Win Win.
As great as those performances are, it's the thematic resonance of Thomas McCarthy that makes his films stick to me so thoroughly. He is making the best films looking at the lives of Americans today after 9/11. The Station Agent is a perfect starting point for this, embracing a very diverse cast of characters that are each wracked with a sudden pain that makes their uniqueness stand out that much more. It was a wonderful movie to embrace after the attacks because it showed that the story of the quiet Americans is not being forgotten after all that pain. The fantasy scenario of Dinklage coming into possession of a train station is like a subdued version of the American dream, rewarding the man's silent diligence in his work so that he can move on to do what he loves for the rest of his life. The diversity is also important, helped by McCarthy regular Bobby Cannavale, as characters are unafraid to ask questions of each other about what sets them apart from regular people.
His third film, Win Win, is a great look at the way the Great Recession affected people. The primary problem of Win Win is that there aren't as many economic opportunities as there used to. It's interesting as well that the catalyst for reversing the bad fortune of Paul Giamatti's character comes with responsibility to the younger generation. Then the film goes on to have the middle-aged Giamatti manipulate both the generation that came before and after to his benefit both economically and socially. The crisis of conscience that finally resolves the film is the one that involves a bit of self-reflection that the situation that Giamatti's character is in is also one that he helped engineer himself. It's American economic hubris masqueraded as a wrestling film, and one that is hilarious to boot.
But it's his second film that cements his status as one of the great archivists of American people. The Visitor should be required viewing for anyone who has the slightest thought, positive or negative, about the modern immigrant experience. The Visitor is the darker cousin to The Station Agent. Instead of diversity being a source of healing from the beginning, it's something that even the most supposedly accepting among us has trouble being comfortable with after 9/11. It's important that the main character is a college professor, especially since they have become one of the symbols for progressive liberal thinking, and that he still has trouble adapting to the foreigners around him.
But that evolution, when it occurs, is stunning. I love the way The Visitor makes a strong point of the professor and his surprise immigrant tenants adapting each other's culture as the film goes on. Further globalization is the future, not some far-flung idea, and the few scenes of perfect harmony are one where the characters are inhabiting foreign worlds. It also beautifully humanizes the effect that our crackdown on anything foreign had on undeserving people after 9/11. Pressures both legal and social cause a rift in a world that was becoming perfect, people are taken away so suddenly, and the life that they thought they could have had ends so suddenly. The last shot of Richard Jenkins, alone on that station platform (again, a dark echo of end of The Station Agent), playing his drums as though he is in mourning, is one of the few shots that even thinking about starts to make me cry.
Thomas McCarthy wrote and directed each of those films, and has contributed creatively to many others (Up, Good Night, and Good Luck to name a couple). I don't know what happened or who he knows that allowed such potent insight into modern Americans, but I'm grateful for it and I await his next film with great anticipation.