Prison dramas, as any Oz fan can tell you, are typically more concerned with the physics of bloodspray than with the inner lives of their characters. The Visit, then, comes as something of a surprise: An earnest character study that’s neither sordid nor exploitative, it portrays the brutality of life behind bars without resorting to a single slit throat. Too bad it’s swamped by good intentions. Structured as a series of jailhouse-visit vignettes, the film tracks the slow, knotty transformation of convicted rapist Alex Waters (Hill Harper) from intractable thug to family man. With the help of his older brother (Obba Babatundé) and a prison psychologist (Phylicia Rashad), Alex—who’s dying of AIDS—confronts his parents (Billy Dee Williams and Marla Gibbs) and childhood sweetheart (Rae Dawn Chong) in an often desperate attempt to ease the loneliness of his final days.
To director Jordan Walker-Pearlman’s credit, Alex’s newfound peace doesn’t spring from some improbable epiphany any more than his guilt or innocence is conclusively established; until The Visit‘s final passage, the change comes via a slow, incomplete melting away of the attitudes that have kept him frozen in resentful indifference for much of his life. Those last scenes, however, contain so many moral and spiritual turnarounds that Alex—and the film—are all but buried in the uplift. Harper, in a fierce, nuanced performance, deserves better. The other actors are generally as good, even if Rashad plays Dr. Coles more as mesmerist than shrink and a parole board sequence helmed by Talia Shire (Talia Shire!) brims with improvisational slop. The real surprise is Williams. His loveless, bullying patriarch is a heartbreakingly repellent man, and, with the exception of an unconvincing graveside coda, Billy Dee pulls no punches. Who knew?