As is so often the case with stage productions translated to screen, the theatrical underpinnings of The Visit are a kind of cage, limiting the freedom of characters and their actions. But as it happens, the constraints are apt here, since Jordan Walker-Pearlman’s artful film, adapted from a play by Kosmond Russell, is a drama about personal reckoning and redemption set in a prison.
And not even a prison of rowdy mess halls and explosive lockdowns, either — the jittery-joint kind we expect after so many seasons of mayhem on Oz: Much of the action takes place in a bare, neutral jailhouse visiting room or prison therapist’s office, the limited geography accessible to Alex Waters (Hill Harper), who is dying of AIDS while doing time for a rape he may or may not have committed. Alex is bitter, but illness has made reconciliation more urgent. And in a series of discrete, legato interactions, interspersed with staccato scenes of arguments among parole-board members discussing Alex’s case, the angry, isolated young man connects with the important people in his life: his upstanding brother (Obba Babatunde); his quick-tempered father (Billy Dee Williams), a taut study in middle-aged, African-American male pride; his saintly, supportive mother (Marla Gibbs), who loves her ”baby”; his old childhood friend (Rae Dawn Chong), who comes to tell Alex how she returned from the pits of crack addiction thanks to spiritual salvation; and his Yoda-like prison therapist (Phylicia Rashad).
Harper has a particularly hard job, since nothing big happens in this sometimes overemphatic inspirational tale, and the changes Alex goes through, from broken man to whole, are all internal. Yet the actor makes them vivid, even while just lying on his bed, remembering the past, in large part because of the amber tone Walker-Pearlman sustains. With its smoky visuals and a soundtrack suave with jazz, this very earnestly American prison gives off an unusually mellow European air.