The Visitor


Directed by: Thomas McCarthy
Written by:Thomas McCarthy
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Hiam Abbass, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Marian Seldes
Released: August 14, 2008
Grade: A

Walter Vale (Jenkins) is a semi-retired college professor from Connecticut.  He is teaching only one subject this year.  You’ll learn pretty quickly that Walter is a “tired” man.  That’s the best adjective I can come up with.  He doesn’t care much about his job and he does his best to avoid communicating with others.  He’s lives alone and has effectively shut himself off from the rest of the world.

Walter reluctantly has to travel to New York City to present a paper at a conference.  He will stay at an apartment that he has a long-term lease over in Manhattan.  Walter hasn’t spent much time there since his wife passed away a few years ago.

When he turns up, Walter finds two squatters living there.  Tarek (Sleiman) is from Syria and Zainab (Gurira) is from Senegal.  They are illegal immigrants trying to “make a go of it” in the United States.  Tarek and Zainab thought they had rented the apartment legitimately but now learn they were duped.

It is at this point that Walter makes a decision which shapes the rest of the story.  Most people would have kicked them out on the street and never seen them again.  I expected Walter to do the same.  He does not however.  Feeling somewhat sorry for Tarek and Zainab, he lets them stay until they can find a new place.

Over the next few days, they become friends.  Walter is interested in their story and wants to learn more about their past and their time in the United States.  He seems most interested in Tarek’s musical abilities.  Tarek plays the African drum and makes a little money by performing in clubs.  Walter has a love of music but has never been able to play an instrument himself.

Their lives will come to an abrupt halt when Tarek is arrested at New York subway station.  The police have identified him as an illegal immigrant and have taken him to a detention centre awaiting deportation.  Zainab is devastated.  She is worried that Tarek will be sent home to Syria and that she’ll never see him again.  She can’t even visit him at the detention centre since she is an illegal immigrant herself.

Walter immediately hires an immigration lawyer to help Tarek in his fight for freedom.  Turning up on his doorstep a few days later is Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Abbass), who has travelled from Michigan.  Walter tells her that there’s nothing she can do but she vows to stay in New York until her son has been released.  She moves into Walter’s apartment and the two find comfort in each other’s company.

There are parts of this movie that will make you feel great.  They will reaffirm your belief in the goodness of people.  There’s a beautiful scene where Walter takes Mouna to see The Phantom Of The Opera.  He knows she is a fan and he takes her with the hope of lifting her spirits.  I loved the way these two characters interacted.  They’re polite to the point where it is almost annoying.

There are also parts of the movie that will make you feel sad.  This includes the humanitarian message within the story which is conveyed strongly by writer-director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent).  The images he captures both inside and outside the detention centre show it to be a very depressing place.  There’s also an element of unknowingness.  We only see the centre through Walter’s eyes.  We don’t see what happens to Tarek beyond the visitor’s room.  You’ll get a sense that it’s not pleasant from Tarek’s changing persona.

Central to the entire film is a wonderful performance from Richard Jenkins.  Jenkins has been in a lot of movies but most always as a supporting actor.  His talents are fully utilised in this film and he features in almost every scene.  He doesn’t say a lot but you can always tell what he’s thinking.

Without a doubt, The Visitor is one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year.