I've been wanting to see The Visitor since I saw the trailer. I've always been a fan of the underrated Richard Jenkins, and the premise about a detached widower befriending a couple of illegal immigrants really piqued my interest. During a week when I had to choose between a cartoon about a kung-fu fighting panda (I was so not in the mood for racial stereotyping) and another cartoon about an Israeli hairdresser (I was so not in the mood for racial stereotyping), I opted for something a little more authentic.
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a college professor who, ever since his wife passed away, doesn't take an interest in anything anymore, including teaching and writing his books. Reluctantly, he has to go to a conference at NYU to present a paper he didn't even write. Arriving at the New York apartment he shared with his wife for over 25 years (which he hasn't lived since she died), he is mistaken for an intruder. Apparently a con man has rented out his apartment to two immigrants, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). Feeling sorry for the couple who now has nowhere to live, Walter decides to let them stay for the time being until they can find a new home.
Tarek is a musician from Syria, and Zainab, who designs and sells her own jewelry, came from Africa. Walter eventually takes an interest in the African drums Tarek is playing, and the gregarious Tarek is more than happy to teach him. Unfortunately, on their way back from Central Park, Tarek is arrested. Zainab freaks out because they're both illegal and she fears that Tarek is going to be deported. Walter, feeling an immense connection with the two, wants to help. He hires an immigration lawyer, who advises him their chances are rather slim.
When Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) comes to New York looking for her son, he lets her stay and becomes her only connection to Tarek. Inevitably Walter falls for beautiful and kind Mouna. Through the process of trying to help Tarek and learning to play the drum, Walter rediscovers his passion and the meaning of life.
Richard Jenkins (The Kingdom, Six Feet Under) is one of Hollywood's most underrated character actors. It's great to see him in a leading role. As Walter, he has a wonderful grasp of detachment, and the eventual changes he goes through feel authentic and not contrived. Not to mention Jenkins can play the African drum pretty well, too. Jenkins's solid performance anchors the film. While Walter is the soul of the film, Haaz Sleiman's (24) Tarek is the heart. Sleiman exudes great charisma and a sense of grace that make his character so likable. He makes it difficult to watch the things happening to Tarek. We can't help but root him to come through.
Danai Gurira (Ghost Town) has a relatively minor role as Zainab. Her character is guarded, untrusting, and withdrawn. Gurira does a good job, but her character is a bit limited in her emotional range. She lives through Tarek, and after Tarek gets arrested, her character practically disappears. Israeli actress Hiam Abbass (Munich) fares better with the character of Mouna. She's beautiful, graceful, and sad. There's so much sadness in her eyes you just know it hasn't been an easy life, and the things happening to her son and her just seem so unfair and cruel. Ultimately, her character must make a fateful decision and Hiam makes it very believable. Her connection with Jenkins also seems real.
Written and directed by actor Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent), the plot is actually rather sparse and straightforward. The premise is interesting though -- and I'm sure things like that happen in New York all the time. It's very interesting that McCarthy chose such as story to tell. As with his lauded debut effort, The Station Agent (which won a BAFTA), McCarthy excels in telling a truly human story with authenticity and poetry. The dialogue is realistic. The situations are realistic. And the connections between these people are realistic. It's not a complicated story, but McCarthy keeps everything on the personal level, giving the film a tremendous emotional weight that feels authentic.
McCarthy's pacing is also very good, considering the intimate and slow nature of the story. The music plays a key part in driving the film along. The drumbeats and the streets of New York liven up the film as the characters meander through their respective lives. He also has a very earthy style, nothing too stylized or artificial, but at the same time there's certain poetry in his images. The poetry, I believe, lies in the authenticity of life. How sometimes people cross paths with you and change your life when you least expect it.
If you liked The Station Agent, you will like The Visitor. It's an underrated gem of a movie, written by one of Hollywood's finest indie writer-actor-directors, and starring an underrated character actor. It's so worth a visit.
Stars: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Writer: Thomas McCarthy
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.5 out of 10