Bill thought he left Vietnam behind him, a distance measured in years and miles and blood. But the past is like a shadow, always attached to the present and sometimes eclipsing the moment. THE VISITORS was Elia Kazan’s last film and one that seems to defy his traditional big budget Hollywood style by being rather amateurishly made. But that is only a superficial criticism because the context of this film’s cinematography is as much a part of the story as the characters themselves. The story concerns people trapped in a morass of ambiguous morality, of people scared of doing the “right thing”…whatever this “right thing” is. I would suggest that this is a common theme throughout Kazan’s oeuvre from ON THE WATERFRONT to A FACE IN THE CROWD as he struggled with his own moral turpitude over naming names to the House Committee on Un-American Activity (HUACC). Thus THE VISITORS is once again allegory with its creator as victim.
Here in his final film Kazan films on location in a farmhouse using a hand held camera, focusing intently upon character interaction in cramped medium close-ups with minimal editing. This Cinema Verite style moves the camera’s point-of-view directly into the situation (seemingly) without stagey blocking or gimmicky set-ups. The actors don’t exaggerate or emote their inner-feelings so often times there are long stretches of silence…just like in real life. The disheveled environment appears not only authentic but documentary which lends a gritty realism to the film. There is a scene of animal violence that is so believable that one wonder’s how it was achieved. This is a brutal and fatalistic story that doesn’t have the requisite starting point or ending, other than the film itself begins and finally stops.
The story takes place in less than 24 hours. The visit isn’t the starting point as we wake up with Bill and Martha and follow their routine throughout the morning. When Mike and Tony show up Bill fails to communicate his anxiety to his wife (or the audience). If one doesn’t know the premise of the film it would seem like a friendly reunion. We learn through exposition that Bill (James Woods) while serving in the Army in Vietnam witnessed a brutal rape on a Vietnamese civilian by his sergeant Mike (James Railsback) and comrade Tony (Chico Martinez). Mike testified at a court-martial and the two men ended up serving time in a military prison. Their return seems of little concern to Mike who becomes very difficult to read thanks to an inspiringly subtle performance from Woods. He invites them into his home and while Mike takes a nap on his sofa, he and Tony take a walk around the farmhouse. He asks Tony if everything is square between them but again doesn’t seem scared or surprised by their appearance: he’s obviously not expecting any problems. It’s as if that violent act in a foreign country happened not only in another time…but by other people. Mike has distanced himself psychologically from the rape and it soon becomes evident that he never told his girlfriend Martha about the experience. The visitors Mike and Tony also do not display any predilection to revenge or violence and at one point clearly state that they don’t know why they returned. It seems as if the “message” of the film is that there is no message or moral at all; that life happens, people react and often don’t understand their own motivations or desires.
As the characters putter around the house they meet Martha’s father Harry, a WW2 vet who now writes pulp Western paperbacks, stories of violence and machismo. As Harry gets drunk he revels in his own war stories and tales of killing and asks Mike and Tony about their experiences. He is unable to understand why they don’t want to talk about Vietnam and often calls Bill’s manhood into question because he is gentle and withdrawn, traits that Harry sees as a weakness in Bill (and all men) instead of strength. In one drunken scene they watch a football game together and Harry exhorts about the virility of the men who play this rugged game as he begins tossing a football around with them. Bill doesn’t participate and we clearly see the battle of the Alpha male with strength dominating the quartet. Martha is relegated to the periphery and one who seems to instigate the final act: an act of brutality and masochistic violence that is difficult to understand. Maybe we’re not meant to understand it.
As the evening turns dark and supper is finished, Harry staggering drunkenly to his guesthouse, Martha becomes closer and closer to Mike, berating him for his past and yet drawing him physically closer, as if she attempts empathy by becoming one, joining together in a union. Confused, Mike pushes back but then reacts tenderly to her kindness. Bill however cannot face his girlfriend’s infidelity and stalks off, failing to confront Mike. When Martha does spurn Mike’s advances he decides to take what he wants by force, evoking the rape for which he was punished. He even allows Tony to take his turn and here their humanity stops and the two become callous, animalistic, as if acting on instinct alone. But who made them that way? Are they solely to blame? Is Martha to blame for her own victimization? Is the Army to blame for making these young men murderers before they’re old enough to drink legally?
Bill is finally driven to violence in the final act as he and Mike beat the shit out of each other. The rifle that was presented earlier when they killed the neighbor’s dog now appears for seemingly its original purpose. But Kazan drives the story into another direction and there are no deaths, just men struggling in the snow and mud. As the two visitors drive away after raping Martha, Bill stumbles into the dank room and asks Martha, “Are you all right?” But he could be speaking to the audience. In this dark and lonely domestic conflict they’re all casualties of war.
Final Cut: (B)