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I wasn’t really that interested in seeing The Visitor, writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s follow-up to the well received The Station Agent. CinemaBlend head honcho Josh Tyler kept asking for someone….anyone….to go see this after it had a strong impact on him when he saw at Sundance earlier this year. I mostly went to get him to shut up about it. I’m very glad I did.
As is the case with many character driven independent films, The Visitor focuses on one of those lives of quiet desperation. In this case, it’s Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a widowed economics professor living in Connecticut. Walter limits his contact with students, co-workers, and just about everyone else, spending his nights drinking wine and listening to classical music. Jenkins, who has a familiar face thanks to appearing as the doctor, executive, neighbor, or friend in every other movie you’ve ever seen, is brilliant at conveying a life that is basically over. He’s running out the clock and hardly fighting it, despite a half-hearted attempt to learn piano (the instrument his wife played.) Against his will, he’s assigned to go to New York to present a paper and heads down to stay in an apartment he owns but rarely visits.
When he arrives, he finds Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician, and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), his girlfriend, living in the apartment, thanks to an unscrupulous real estate agent. Walter doesn’t have the heart to throw them out on the street and offers to let them stay while he's in the city for the conference. Zainab is wary due to the couple’s illegal residency status but Tarek, friendly and outgoing in an almost too good to be true way, begins to break through Walter’s wall by teaching him the drum. As Walter begins to come out of his shell, a little, Tarek is arrested following a misunderstanding in the subway and, due to his illegal alien status, is tossed into a “detention center” in Queens. This leads Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), to come out from Michigan and Walter invites her to stay in the apartment as well.
While all of this asking strangers to live with you sounds a bit far fetched, it feels very natural. The relationship between Walter and Tarek is a little “movie-cute” but enjoyable as Walter begins to reengage with part of society. It’s after Tarek is arrested however, that Walter is really forced to do what he seems to hate most, interact and care about other people. He’s not mean or unfeeling, he’s just been in a deep freeze for so long that he doesn’t have the ability to see things from anyone else’s point of view. Watching him warm up is really a joy and the budding relationships between Walter and Tarek and, later, Walter and Mouna are perfect in tone and nuance.
The film is fairly quiet and character driven, although it does touch on the politics of immigration. Tarek is such a nice and friendly guy that his arrest and detention seem to be fear and bureaucracy run amok. The fact that he is, in fact, in the country illegally is mostly brushed aside. Several characters point out that he “didn’t do anything,” but, of course, he did. That said, with the exception of a couple of outbursts and a few subtle ironic posters and visual images, McCarthy mostly lets the humor, tenderness, and humanity of his characters take precedence over political diatribes. It’s the smart choice.
While all four leads turn in strong performances, the movie rises on Jenkins’ talent, which is formidable. He turns Walter into a real person rather than a cliché and that, in turn, makes the whole movie work. Even hard hearted conservatives, like myself, will find much to like in this quiet and actorly film.