The Visitor – Review

No sophomore slump for Tom McCarthy and his Visitor.

Visitor poster
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Writer/Director: Thomas McCarthy
Notable Cast: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Dana Gurira, Hiam Abbass

The Visitor is a thoughtful story about friendship that is prompted by a simple act of kindness. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a widowed economics professor at a Connecticut college. His wife was a talented pianist, and ever since her passing he’s been trying to capture the harmony he had with her through piano lessons. Having gone through four teachers already, Walter has not mastered the black-and-white keys. He remains aimless, no clear direction of where his life is headed. When he is sent to New York for a conference, Walter stops into an apartment he keeps. It is there he finds a young couple taking residence. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesa Gurira) have been living there the past two months. Walter wishes them to leave at first but reneges and allows them to stay. Their time together is one of curiosity. Despite the cultural differences, Walter becomes genuinely interested when he sees Tarek playing an African drum. Tarek recognizes the interest and begins to teach the introverted professor how rhythm can free his inhibitions.

Sadly, the building relationship incurs a problem when Tarek is arrested and revealed to be an illegal. He is sent to a detention center while Walter and Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) try to get him released.

Several years ago, Tom McCarthy wrote and directed The Station Agent, a wondrous film about three strangers, of different walks of life, who become friends. Here again, McCarthy tells a story of how a newly formed relationship is tested. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea that both Tarek and Zainab are in America illegally. But the Syrian drummer and his Senegalese girlfriend aren’t looking for handouts. McCarthy wants us to warm up to the characters before showing how real life and the unexpected can strain the bonds of friendship.

With the film’s climax – Tarek’s arrest and detention sentence – The Visitor explores the complexities of immigration and New York’s strict citizenship requirements. This isn’t a polemic; McCarthy doesn’t overstress the practice. He weaves the issues through the story. And with each character having contradictory personality attributes, the humanity is different and more complex.

Walter is nothing like Tarek but they understand each other. Zaniab is skittish, and all around forlorn, especially towards Walter, but begins to string more than a few words together in his presence. Tarek’s mother, Mouna, is probably the strongest character in the entire film. A widow like Walter, she remains resolute never letting her fear about her son’s fate get the best of her.

I need to recognize Richard Jenkins. A character actor and supporting star for the majority of his career, The Visitor is his first leading role. And what a performance it is. McCarthy paints Walter Vale as a dull person, and Jenkins is able to encapsulate such a man. But as Walter emerges with a sense of purpose Jenkins also transforms. His unmitigated kindness is sincere, unmotivated.

Tom McCarthy has produced another gem. Sure to be lost in the season of summer blockbusters, The Visitor is a film that needs to be discovered. Rich characters, rewarding relationships and the complexities of real life. It pulls at the heartstrings, but it’s a gentle tug.