Once in a while, you stumble upon a movie that you never heard of, and it surprises you immensely. And it feels magical! The Visitor is a movie best-approached by knowing absolutely nothing about it and I highly recommend that you watch it first. I feel bad for giving a synopsis of the plot but I feel I must. So here we go:
The Visitor takes place in our post 9/11 world. College Professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely widower with a boring life. His zombie life consists entirely of teaching one Economics class at a local Connecticut school, attending a few meetings, eating by himself, and taking piano lessons even though he is just not very good at it. One day. he is asked to give a lecture at a conference in New York City which he reluctantly accepts as he own a flat in the Big Apple. When he gets there, he is taken aback by the fact that a couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), has been living in his apartment, renting the place from a swindler. Embarrassed of being scammed, they quickly apologize and leave but Walter reluctantly follows them and convinces them to stay until they figure something out. Despite being completely different in terms of culture, age, and temperament, Tarek and Walter quickly form a friendship as they play African drums together, giving the new man a new sense of long-forgotten passion and joie de vivre. Obviously, something wrong has to happen to drive the story, and Tarek is mistakenly arrested in the subway for not paying his fare. It is determined that he is an illegal immigrant and he is taken to a detention center, awaiting deportation. Walter decides to help his friend.
Directed by Thomas McCarthy, The Visitor is a poignant and efficient character study. A movie that touches on some relevant contemporary issues without getting condescending or phony. Tarek is an all-around nice guy, all smiles and living though his music. He gives drums lessons to the dormant Walter and we can see life come back in Walter’s eyes as he becomes quite adept at playing the instrument. This all comes to an end when Tarek is arrested and scheduled for deportation. The person that brought Walter back to life is now being taken away by his government. The movie exposes the limit of US immigration laws without getting controversial but most importantly, delves into the things that are common within people of all origins and background. The ending of the movie is fitting and definitely not your tidy Hollywood happy ending as we see Walter hammering away at his drum, expressing his anger at the system.
The movie is perfectly cast with Richard Jenkins fitting the Walter role like a glove. You may not instantly recognize Richard Jenkins by his name but you will by his face. He is one of the best character actor in the business and has done so many movies as a supporting character ( Hint: played the dad in Step Brothers). His Oscar-nominated performance is a thing of beauty. He is restrained and understated but yet, he conveys the transformation that is happening inside Walter’s soul. He trust his acting to convey everything that needs to be known and it does. Walter is a soft-spoken man incredibly bored with his life and seeing him take small risks that get him out of his shell and give him some great pleasures is extremely rewarding for the viewer. It is very cool to see an older actor of his pedigree get a nicely written leading role that fits him perfectly. We also get powerful and moving performances from Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, and the beautiful Hiam Abbass who plays Tarek’s mother. Those four actors did a great job of making their characters real and likable in their own way and we can’t help but sympathize with their situation.
Production values are first rate. The movie is shot on location in New York City and portrays different aspect of the city very fittingly. The musical score is also excellent mixing in classical music (Walter’s wife was a pianist) and more exotic music.
Very moving film that is carried by four exceptional performances. A gem.