Running Time 107 minutes
Written and Directed by Tom McCarthy
Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira
Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, from his own screenplay, is nothing short of a triumph for 60-year-old character actor Richard Jenkins, in his first leading role in a feature film. Mr. Jenkins has hitherto been best known as the ghostly undead undertaker in the hit cable series, Six Feet Under. Here Mr. Jenkins plays 62-year-old Walter Vale, a just-going-through-the-motions economics professor at a Connecticut college, where he teaches only one class a semester on the pretext he is working on his fourth book in his field of study, his first three presumably not having set the world on fire. He has been especially lethargic since the recent death of his wife. To fill the void in his existence, Walter has belatedly started taking piano lessons in classical music from a succession of piano teachers, each of whom has told him that he has no aptitude for music. His last teacher suggests that if he finally does give up his futile quest for a minimal proficiency, he consider selling her his piano, which he dispiritedly does in due time.
Up to this point in the narrative, Walter’s ennui has not been exaggerated to the extent that it works as either pure farce or pungent satire. He does just enough to keep up the appearance that he’s still indeed pursuing a career in education and writing—just enough, but not much more. When he is virtually ordered by a superior to read a paper at a Manhattan academic conference of economics professors, Walter reluctantly agrees, even though the paper has actually been written by an indisposed colleague.
He returns to a Manhattan apartment he and his wife used during their theater visits and off-term vacations. Walter is surprised to discover that it is now occupied by an illegal alien couple, Syrian musician Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira). The couple has been swindled by an unscrupulous real estate agent into believing that the apartment could be theirs for a small fee. After the initial misunderstanding is cleared up, the couple prepares to leave, but on an impulse Walter persuades them to stay until they can find another place of their own.
In the days that follow, Walter becomes attuned to Tarek’s beating on an African drum, and then purchases his own. Tarek offers to teach Walter; Walter begins to attend Tarek’s jam sessions with other drummers, and begins participating himself. They both visit Zainab’s sidewalk market, where she sells her handicrafts.
Then one day when Walter and Tarek are on a subway platform on the way home from a drum session, Tarek is picked up by two immigration agents and asked to show his legal documents, which he is unable to do. He is immediately taken to the nearest police precinct. When Walter finally tracks Tarek down, he assures him that he will get a lawyer for his case, which he promptly does. When Walter tells Zainab that Tarek has been arrested, she insists on moving out of the apartment for propriety’s sake, and moving to a girlfriend’s place instead. Walter asks her in vain to stay, but respects the dignity shown in her decision.
Meanwhile, Tarek’s beautiful Palestinian mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), arrives from Michigan to see her son and his girlfriend, whom she had never met. She is a little surprised to see the African darkness of her skin, but the two women embrace emotionally over their mutual loss of Tarek. Walter takes a leave of absence from his college to arrange all these meetings and other details. He also develops a romantic interest in Mouna, which she reciprocates. A life of lethargy has by now been transformed into one of rejuvenating commitment to the cause of illegal aliens in our midst, at the mercy of ruthless immigration officials with only minimal restraint.
Yet despite Walter’s efforts, Tarek is quickly deported back to Senegal, from which Tarek and Zainab had previously been denied asylum. And despite her love for Walter, Mouna decides that she must follow her son to Senegal. Walter accepts her decision and then makes one final act to affirm that the course of his life has changed irrevocably.
Mr. McCarthy, who has previously won critical and festival plaudits as the writer-director of The Station Agent (2003), has also worked as an actor in Flags of Our Fathers, Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, Year of the Dog and Meet the Parents. He was also featured in the final season of HBO’s series The Wire.
The Visitor is the second feature film that plays as if it were meant to serve as a rebuke to Lou Dobbs, the popular cable news commentator, who has made himself the media focus for a tougher policy toward illegal aliens. The earlier seemingly anti-Dobbsian cinematic statement was Patricia Riggen’s Under the Same Moon, with a screenplay by Ligiah Villalobos (in English and Spanish with English subtitles). That it set a first-week box-office record for a subtitled film is not surprising in view of its shamelessly sentimental soap-opera story, about a Mexican mother (Kate del Castillo), an illegal alien working in L.A., literally mooning over her little boy left behind in Mexico. When the little boy (the angelic Adrian Alonso) sets out to cross the border in search of his mother, and succeeds in overcoming the most fearsome obstacles, mostly immigration agents, to hug his mother at the final fade-out, the moon itself begins to mist over with tears. My considered advice is to skip Under the Same Moon, and, by all means, see The Visitor, if only for its comparative restraint.