The set up for The Visit is at once simple and endlessly complicated. Alex Waters (Hill Harper) is in prison, sentenced to 25 years for a rape that he insists he did not commit. He’s also dying of AIDS, contracted during his incarceration. Angry and bitter, he’s also feeling abandoned: his parents haven’t been to visit in over five years. As the film begins, Alex is visited by his older, successful businessman brother, Tony (Obba Babatunde), who has just come for the first time in 10 months, because, well, you know, his own life is busy, with deadlines and stuff to do. Tony sees that Alex is miserable, however, and promises that he’ll convince their parents to come, if only to say good-bye.
When they do come, Alex and his father, Henry (Billy Dee Williams) clash immediately. Henry is near bursting with anger and guilt, while his wife Lois (Marla Gibbs), is torn between loyalty to her husband and love and fear for her son. The Visit traces their slow, difficult route to reconciliation, focused on emotional details rather than visible action, internal (and internalized) tension rather than fisticuffs. First-time writer-director Jordan Walker-Pearlman has adapted Kosmond Russell’s play so that it remains contained and “play-like.” Aside from flashbacks that only partly explain characters’ motives, it’s set entirely in the prison (shot at the decommissioned Lincoln Heights jail in Los Angeles), more specifically, in the stark room where Alex meets with his visitors, separated by a table and years of disappointment and misunderstanding.
This lack of mobility and variety speaks directly to Alex’s experience. Unlike currently popular representations of prison—say, your average Sly-Stallone-type-in-prison movie or Tom Fontana’s justly celebrated HBO series, Oz, made dazzling with acrobatic camerawork and fast-cut editing—The Visit is unflashy, almost to a fault. Here the characters sit still and talk to one another, resulting in painful self-discoveries and knotty silences.
Alex’s first visit with his parents is like this. While Lois wants desperately to reconnect with her son, Henry remains quietly furious, unable to figure just how his kid has ended up in such an unfixably bad place. In this regard, he’s like Tony, their similarities sketched in details, their straight-backed postures and careful grooming. Where Alex is plainly frail and restless, the other Waters men are solid and self-confident, polished and self-conscious. Or, rather, they look this way at first. As they come again and again to the prison, you see that these appearances are fronts, that they have their own insecurities, not only about their relationships with Alex, but about their own achievements as well as failures (maybe, they wonder, such achievements come at too high a price…). In short, all the characters must learn to live with both desires and limits.
For the most part, the film is taut. Alex serves as narrative and thematic backbone: his dilemma affects everyone else’s self-understanding. This dilemma extends beyond the obvious (how to live with imminent death): in an effort to make sense of his situation, Alex tries to accommodate (and occasionally challenge) his visitors, as well as the prison psychologist, Dr. Coles (Phylicia Rashad). Walker-Pearlman uses original music by artists working in different genres as background for each of these encounters (Michael Bearden, Stefan Dickerson, Ramsey Lewis, Stanley A. Smith, and jazz trumpetist Wallace Roney). The variations mirror Alex’s experience, elegantly demonstrating the ways that music creates character and mood, for viewers as well as for Alex, whose own subjective experience is mirrored in this process.
Alex’s visitors include not only Tony and his parents, but also his childhood friend, Felicia (Rae Dawn Chong), who is recovering from her own awful past. This past reads like a soap opera: she’s an incest victim who bore her father’s child, killed her father, became a crack addict, and is now recovering after getting religion. It’s not that Felicia’s story is unlikely or even not “real,” but the character brings a lot to Alex’s table in just a few minutes of screen time. That is, it comes off as heavy-handed and cliched, particularly for a character whose function is, after all, to offer another angle on Alex. Her own flashbacks are simultaneously overwrought and cryptic, but the scenes Felicia shares with Alex are less grand in scope, subtler and more effective.
Alex also changes demeanor when he goes to meet with the parole board (played by Talia Shire, David Clennon, Glynn Turman, Efrain Figueroa, and Amy Stiller). Here he’s deferential and painfully self-contained, knowing all too well that their decision will change everything, one way or the other. Their interactions before and after Alex’s appearance before them reveal that the board members make decision based not only on the “merits of his case,” but also their own interpersonal dynamic, their individual agendas, even what they had for breakfast that morning. In other words, the machinery of “justice” depends on so many factors, subjective as well as objective, that the reality of one man’s circumstances has precious little to do with judgments passed and outcomes reached.
The Visit is at its best when considering measures of masculinity and dread of not living up to them. At one point, Alex asks his father if he believes that a “real man” can get AIDS. Even aside from the homosexual anxiety this question evinces, it points to the many social and political ways that men are evaluated and judged, and parallels Henry, Tony, and Alex’s concerns that their very different understandings of responsibility and self-identity might match up, or at least complement one another. Where the women play stereotypical roles, repeatedly displaying their capacity for support and resilience, the men struggle with being less hard, with exploring their “weaknesses.” Remarkably, the film poses such questions without making its men into either heroic or melodramatic figures. They remain complicated and imperfect, even as they come to their inevitable reconciliation.
The fact that Alex is confronting death makes his search for “meaning” rather immediate, and the closeness of his scenes—the smallness of the cell, the tight frames of his face—neatly connote his altered speed and focus. The end has its soapy aspects, but is moving as well, in large part because Hill delivers such a consistently restrained performance. By the time Alex’s lack of comprehension begins to dissolve into acceptance, of himself and others, the film has already done its work. Understanding is relative, in more ways than one.