Movie review by Greg Carlson
Writer-director (and regular actor) Thomas McCarthy follows his strong debut “The Station Agent” with “The Visitor,” a warm, character-driven showcase for veteran thespian Richard Jenkins. Like McCarthy’s debut feature, “The Visitor” adopts an unhurried pace to spin its tale of a middle-aged academic whose intellectual and spiritual malaise are obliterated by an unexpected encounter. “The Visitor” mirrors “The Station Agent” in several other ways as well, including an emphasis on thoughtful, carefully considered interactions among central characters who are emotionally guarded and more than a little bit leery of opening up to others. While some viewers will find that the movie embraces a piety that creeps close to sanctimoniousness, others will enjoy the director’s well-crafted variation on opposites attracting.
“The Visitor” introduces the viewer to the dour, taciturn Walter Vale (Jenkins), a professor of global economics whose career has stagnated since the death of his pianist wife. Pressured by a colleague to deliver a paper at an NYU conference, Walter returns to a rarely visited apartment he still rents in the city and is startled to discover that a young Syrian musician named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) have been swindled into renting it by an opportunistic con artist. As expected, Walter eventually invites the illegal immigrants to stay, and they cautiously renegotiate their living arrangements as they slowly warm up to one another.
Walter’s longtime passion for music migrates from classical to Afrobeat when he hears Tarek’s nimble drumming. With the encouragement of the accomplished and easy-going Tarek, an inspired Walter begins to practice regularly. “The Visitor” might have continued quietly along this path, but McCarthy abruptly changes gears to explore a social-political dimension of post-9/11 immigration policy when Tarek is arrested and held in a sub-contracted detention facility to await deportation. The filmmaker’s indignant attitude moves front and center, but the fortunate dramatic byproduct of this choice is the arrival of Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass), who breathes life into every scene in which she appears.
Jenkins, who has appeared in multiple movies by the Coen Brothers, the Farrelly Brothers, and David O. Russell, has developed a cult following, and “The Visitor” provides him with an opportunity to anchor nearly every scene in the film. No matter what his role, Jenkins has always conveyed a fierce intelligence and a wicked sense of humor, and while opportunities for the latter are largely absent from “The Visitor,” viewers will not be disappointed in his work. McCarthy’s script transforms Walter from a stiff classroom presence into a passionate enthusiast of African rhythms perhaps too smoothly, but Jenkins is never less than compelling, and his cast-mates are uniformly wonderful.
“The Visitor” juggles several thematic concerns, and some are handled with more subtlety than others. A tentative romance that develops between Walter and Mouna might have been a movie all by itself. McCarthy’s high-minded moralizing, which manifests in Walter’s growing outrage and frustration at the government’s treatment of Tarek, hits several sour notes, and is only salvaged by the film’s postscript. With the exception of one brief flicker, Tarek remains cheerful, patient, and optimistic during his confinement – hard to believe considering that he faces being expelled from his adopted country. Even so, “The Visitor” remains thoroughly watchable.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/2/08.