The Visitor

The Visitor movie poster


The Vis­i­tor is the excel­lent sopho­more effort from Thomas McCarthy, writer/director of The Sta­tion Agent (2003). The dis­gust­ing­ly tal­ent­ed McCarthy is also an accom­plished actor, most recent­ly appear­ing as a cor­po­rate espi­onage agent in Tony Gilroy’s Duplic­i­ty and as a pla­gia­riz­ing jour­nal­ist in The Wire.

Wal­ter Vale (Richard Jenk­ins) is a polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Con­necti­cut Col­lege. The recent wid­ow­er has regressed into a will­ful­ly lone­ly state, hav­ing lost his social graces and mere­ly coast­ing in his respon­si­bil­i­ties. In one small way at least, he does seem to be try­ing to grow a lit­tle as the movie begins. He runs through a num­ber of piano instruc­tors, futile­ly attempt­ing to pick up the instru­ment at an age he is coun­seled to not even try. We lat­er learn that this effort is fac­ing back­wards and grasp­ing at the past; his late wife was a con­cert pianist.

Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in The Visitor

Wal­ter reluc­tant­ly trav­els to New York City to present a paper he nom­i­nal­ly cowrote. He finds that his neglect­ed vacant city apart­ment has been ille­gal­ly sub­let by a man named Ivan (which comes across like a clue dropped for a future con­flict — who is this Ivan with a key to his place, and will he return? But the plot point is nev­er picked back up). His unex­pect­ed ten­ants are a young cou­ple bare­ly mak­ing a liv­ing in New York City as artists: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syr­i­an djem­be play­er, and Zainab (Danai Jeke­sai Guri­ra), a Sene­galese jew­el­ry design­er. The con­sci­en­tious Wal­ter balks at throw­ing them out and instead befriends them. Tarek begins to teach him to play the djem­be, which he takes to more imme­di­ate­ly than he ever did the piano.

My one com­plaint is that the char­ac­ter of Tarek is too sketchi­ly drawn. He’s an implau­si­bly good and nice guy, with­out a hint of any­thing even remote­ly dark. Where are this very gre­gar­i­ous man’s oth­er friends? Even the icy Zainab seems to have pals at the out­doors mar­ket where she sells her hand­made jew­el­ry.

Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor

The trio’s brief peri­od of hap­pi­ness is bro­ken when Tarek is detained over a mis­un­der­stand­ing that inci­den­tal­ly reveals he and Zainab have both over­stayed their visas. As Wal­ter tries to aid his new friends, he finds him­self plunged into the black hole of ille­gal immi­gra­tion and Home­land Secu­ri­ty. Tarek’s over­pro­tec­tive moth­er Mouma (Hiam Abbass) arrives, and Wal­ter becomes her ambas­sador as they shut­tle back and forth to a deten­tion cen­ter in Queens (a bor­ough the movie por­trays rather unflat­ter­ing­ly). If find­ing new friends and an invig­o­rat­ing cre­ative out­let had not already plunged Wal­ter back into life, a bud­ding romance with Mouma com­pletes his new slate.

The Vis­i­tor and The Sta­tion Agent both man­age to just bare­ly skate the razor edge of sen­ti­men­tal cheese. Keep­ing the sto­ry of Walter’s emo­tion­al reha­bil­i­ta­tion from being too corny is the wor­ry that Wal­ter is maybe a bit too des­per­ate to ingra­ti­ate him­self. Mouna under­stand­ably does a dou­ble­take when she learns how much he is sac­ri­fic­ing to help Tarek, even though they have all known him for only a few days. Indeed, the per­pet­u­al­ly ner­vous Zainab sus­pect­ed his inten­tions from the very begin­ning — his aid would seem to be too good to be true were he not a man with a des­per­ate hole in his life. Zainab’s dis­trust is the defen­sive stance of some­one who knows she could be kicked out of her new home at any moment — xeno­pho­bia dressed up as com­bat­ing ter­ror­ism. It’s all the more affect­ing when she final­ly melts and opens up to Wal­ter and Mouna.

Any one of these char­ac­ters could be the tit­u­lar Vis­i­tor: Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna are, in the eyes of the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, at worst poten­tial ter­ror­ists and at best tem­po­rary labor, no mat­ter what they may have to offer. Wal­ter has homes in Con­necti­cut and New York but doesn’t real­ly live in either one.

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