Filmmaker Tom McCarthy, who also works as an actor, certainly knows both crafts. Like his endearing debut film The Station Agent, his second effort at writing/directing, The Visitor, is good work with fine performances that get under the skin. But there’s a difference between the two films, which spurs musings on what is entertainment.
Richard Jenkins as the film’s depressed hero does what he can with the character he’s given. But we must go the film’s journey with him and he’s hardly the most upbeat of traveling companions. The bumpy road means that this cinematic trip may not generate the kind of word of mouth a film like this needs.
Jenkins plays the quiet, white-bread Walter Vale, a familiar WASP-y Connecticut Yankee who still mourns for his late wife. A university economics professor in his early 60s, Walter is in a crippling rut: He has lost interest in teaching but lamely maintains his academe cred by attending conferences and seminars. He also continues to tinker with the piano, once a passion.
Sent to New York City for another conference, Walter returns to the Manhattan apartment he has always held onto. There, to his surprise, he finds a squatter couple—the Syrian Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his beautiful Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira)—who were scammed into renting the place. But Walter’s a nice guy and he lets them stay until they resettle.
Considering his fragile mental state, Walter is also impressionable. Tarek is full of life, a talented African drummer who performs in parks and clubs. He rekindles Walter’s interest in music and performance and teaches him the rhythms of African percussion. Hooked, Walter takes to the drums and tries to learn this vibrant world music—the film’s metaphor for a vibrant, engaged, renewed life. But another metaphor is the wedding band Walter continues to wear—the symbol of his ongoing struggle to move on.
Walter also assists Zainab, who sells her handmade jewelry at an outdoor market. But when Tarek is stopped by chance at a subway station after he struggles to maneuver his drums through a turnstile and is detained because he is undocumented, things turn grim. Tarek is removed to a Kafkaesque institutional holding facility in an industrial area of Queens. He might be deported.
Walter labors to get his release and soon meets Tarek’s lovely mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass), who lives in Michigan. He lets her stay in his apartment, they grow closer, and romance ensues. The story unfolds rather predictably, with a bureaucratic and dispassionate immigration system emerging the only villain. If the decent, hard-working illegals depicted here are representative of what we perceive as our burgeoning illegal population, this country’s immigration quandary would be over.
And if Walter were not so saturnine and low-key a character, The Visitor might have enticed a bigger audience. Still, Jenkins does a great job with the material and Tom McCarthy’s latest is quality work that deserves attention.