Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
The Visitor wants to make a statement about immigration and how immigrants have been treated much like terrorists since September 11th. That it ultimately accomplishes this is not a product of its overt preachiness, but rather of the fact that its four main characters are fully-fleshed out human beings, no matter what their political situation. It just so happens that, in this case, three of them are undocumented residents of the United States and the other is a college professor who has recently lost his wife. The college professor is played by Richard Jenkins, an actor whom we have seen in numerous television shows and films but we probably can’t recall exactly which ones. Be that as it may, I can assure you is that after this film we won’t have that problem anymore.
Jenkins is Walter Vale, a tenured professor at a college in Connecticut who is simply tired of his job. Having taught the same course for over twenty years, he no longer finds joy in what he does. He’s so bored in fact that he finds the need to pretend he’s writing just so he can “show” people that he’s not wasting the rest of his life away. Everything seems incomplete about this guy; he loves music, but can’t even love it enough to master the piano, despite many attempts. The action begins when his dean has him travel to New York City to speak about the new book he wrote (of course he didn’t actually write it though – he just lent his name to it.) He goes reluctantly, and plans to stay in the apartment he once shared with his late wife, and still owns. However, once he arrives he discovers a couple living there, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira). He is understandably shocked, but not nearly as much as the couple, since they rented the place from a man that Walter has never met before.
Walter’s initial confusion eventually gives way to genuine concern, and he invites the pair to stay with him until they figure out where to go next. It helps that Tarek is a musician that plays the African drum. Walter clearly wants to explore his creative side, and the two men forge a bond. Tarek teaches him to play, and even begins to take him to a local park where crowds congregate and jam. It all plays out like a typical Horatio Alger story…at least until Tarek is arrested for not paying his subway fare.
This lovely couple, it turns out, is undocumented, and so Tarek’s misdemeanor takes on a life of its own. He is brought to a detention center in Queens that appears to be nothing more than a prison with better outdoor decorating. Walter hires a lawyer, only to be told that laws have changed since 9/11; the government now sees things more “black and white, you belong or you don’t.” Soon enough Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) shows up at Walter's door wondering why her son hasn't called her in several days. The relationship that develops between her and Walter is sweet yet ultimately heartbreaking.
In less assured hands, The Visitor could have turned into a heavy-handed message picture. Luckily however, writer/director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent) took the more humanistic approach. In Walter, he has created a brilliant portrayal of mid-life crisis, and we watch a man shake off a middle-class induced coma and truly connect to other human beings in a way he (or we) could never have imagined. Jenkins masterfully layers his performance, so that you can see his armor of internalization slowly and gradually break down as he learns to care about life again. More than finding something to do with his life, Walter is shaken out of his upper middle class coma and begins to connect with people in ways he never imagined he was capable of. Richard Jenkins is simply perfect in this role, playing a guy who internalizes just about everything thrown his way until he begins to care about something again. This is truly a great, shattering performance, and he makes it look easy.
The Visitor leaves us with feelings of regret, sort of a sad emptiness that lingers long after we’ve left the theater. The last image of Walter is on a subway platform as he pounds away on his African drum in defiance of a broken system.