Lots of ink has been spilled analyzing the latter-day career of director Eliza Kazan, a onetime champion of the left-wing theatrical community and a key figure in the process of introducing Method acting to America. Around the same time he made cinematic masterpieces with Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire), James Dean (East of Eden), and Andy Griffith (A Face in the Crowd), Kazan turned on old friends by “naming names” before the U.S. government’s anti-communist witch hunters. Partially owing to the complex political dynamics of his career, Kazan was effectively finished as a director of major studio films just a few years later, circa the early ’60s. Nonetheless, he still had some creative gas left in the tank, as evidenced by the offbeat low-budget project The Visitors, Kazan’s penultimate feature.
Stamped with his signatures of emotional intensity and truthful acting, the picture feels hipper and rougher and more contemporary than anything one might reasonably expect from a 63-year-old (Kazan’s age at the time of the movie’s release). A small, character-driven drama/thriller written by one of Kazan’s sons, Chris Kazan, The Visitors is a nihilistic story about psychologically scarred Vietnam veterans, and the whole film is set on a remote farm in the Northeast during wintertime.
Unassuming vet Bill Schmidt (James Woods) lives with his girlfriend, Martha (Patricia Joyce), on a farmed owned by her father, Harry Wayne (Patrick McVey). Harry, who resides in a guesthouse adjoining the farm’s main residence, is an alcoholic he-man novelist, so underlying tension stems from his disapproval of Bill’s pacifistic timidity. One day, two of Bill’s Army comrades show up unexpectedly. Mike Nickerson (Steve Railsback) feigns courtesy but obviously hides tremendous rage, while Tony Rodrigues (Chico Martinez) tags along and follows Mike’s orders without question. As the day-long visit progresses, the vets bond with Harry—who respects their blood lust and racist attitudes—while Bill prepares for inevitable violence. It turns out that during the war, Mike and Tony committed atrocities, and Bill was the soldier who testified against them. (Make what you will about the parallels between this backstory and Kazan’s personal history.)
Shot in grainy 16-millimeter, The Visitors has the feel of a scrappy independent film even though Kazan’s handling of pacing and tone is masterful. The picture has the slow-burn structure of a horror film, and it’s stomach-churning to watch a metaphorical cloud of darkness form over the tiny farm. Moreover, the screenplay illuminates the line dividing the “sanctioned” violence germane to American life (the brutal football game several characters watch, Harry’s tales of killing enemies in World War II, etc.) from the “unsanctioned” violence of actual criminals. Does one beget the other?
The Visitors has flaws, of course, notably a nasty sort of sexual politics. Further, the film is unremittingly grim, which will make it a tough experience for many viewers. But especially thanks to incendiary performances by Railsback (one of the screen’s great portrayers of psychosis), Woods (a live wire even in a restrained role such as this one), and McVey (who channels Sterling Hayden with a vengeance), The Visitors is gripping from start to finish.
The Visitors: GROOVY