2007 // USA // Thomas McCarthy // May 10, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor is a sweet, noble film. Its parameters are comfortable and appealing (and perhaps a bit tired). This is a curious thing in a film that tackles the perils of comfort quite forcefully. The film tells the story of Walter Vale, an economics professor who, by his own admission, is no longer engaged in his own life. We follow Walter's encounter with an immigrant couple—him a Syrian drummer, her a Senegalese jewelry-maker—and the friendships and trials that emerge from this meeting. The film succeeds so effortlessly in sketching a moving story of decent and flawed humanity, that to dub it a "feel-good movie" seems an offense. McCarthy keeps usurping our expectations, and when he slips in a polemic against callous, absurd immigration policies, it doesn't seem out of place.
Walter (Richard Jenkins) is a sympathetic figure, but not particularly likable. He teaches one economics course at his college in Connecticut, recycling his syllabus from previous years. He is ostensibly laboring on a fourth book, although we never see him writing. He drinks wine, listens to classical music, and stares out his office window. His tenured position has apparently left him with only a shadow of ambition. He has been trying to learn piano, possibly to preserve some echo of his deceased musician wife, but as the film opens he dismisses his fourth consecutive instructor in frustration.
Walter travels to New York City for an economics conference, returning to the city apartment he hasn't visited in months. To his shock, he discovers Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) living there, squatting amid his furniture and the mementos of his wife. Following a tense confrontation, they quickly apologize and hustle out of the apartment. Then Walter changes his mind. He offers to share the apartment until the couple can find other arrangements.
This contrivance is the dramatic version of Meeting Cute, and the participants are a little too movie-friendly in their particulars. Walter is the good-hearted sad sack who needs a spark to transform his life for the better. Tarek and Zainab are strikingly attractive, sincere, and decent. They are also exotic, and therefore fascinating to the humdrum Walter, as well as to the film's likely audience. Especially in its first half, a whiff of lip-service multiculturalism clings to The Visitor. This isn't so much unpleasant as it is unadventurous. "See?," McCarthy seems to be saying, "Immigrants aren't all bad!" The film exhibits at least some self-awareness, however, such as when it provides a brief, discomforting scene with a condescending Ugly American. This highlights Walter's more equitable, evolving stance towards his new friends.
Based solely on a description of its concept, The Visitor might sound like lukewarm film. However, the luster of its storytelling is admirable, and the detours that it takes on its path are genuinely poignant and thoughtful. McCarthy, who also wrote the screenplay, elegantly and convincingly shows how reaching across cultural comfort zones—constructed along racial, religious, class, and linguistic lines—can reap profound emotional rewards.
The talisman of this theme is Tarek's drum. Walter takes a tentative interest in the musician's instrument, and eventually discovers that he has a modest talent and effusive love for drumming. It's telling that McCarthy uses this revelation as a gateway to a closer relationship between Walter and Tarek, and not as an end in itself. Indeed, one of the film's best scenes captures Walter's self-consciousness, and then his joy, as he moves from spectator to musician in an ad hoc public drum circle. Jenkins' spot-on performance and McCarthy commitment to vigorously render the musical experience both serve to check what would otherwise be an overstated metaphor.
Just as the new roommates are acclimating, Tarek is arrested under confused and questionable circumstances. His immigration status is disputed, and he finds himself incarcerated in a private correctional facility in Queens. Both he and a helpless Walter and Zainab come face-to-face with the bleak realities of Arab life in modern America. Tarek's widowed mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), arrives from Michigan, and it is she who then moves into Walter's apartment as they navigate the cruel corridors of immigration law. Despite the trying situation, an affection begins to develop between Walter and Mouna, something not quite friendship and not quite romantic love.
The performances are exceptional, with each actor finding a stance that complements his or her fellows. There is potent chemistry between all the principals that conveys authentic friendship and attraction rather than the traces of a script. Sleiman and Abbass as mother and son are particular standouts, despite the fact that—or perhaps because—they never appear on-screen together. Sleiman renders Tarek as a humorous, proud, mildly careless artist with a generous spirit. Abbass, meanwhile, delivers a believable portrayal of a mature Syrian woman, made guarded and resolute during her years in America.
Throughout the film, McCarthy keeps the tale fresh and endearing by having the nerve to wander away from formulaic plotting. Walter never surpasses his mentor at drumming, nor does the instrument re-invigorate his love for teaching and writing. Tarek puts on a brave face at first, but his charming persona begins to crumble during his detention, and he lashes out at Walter in his anger. Even in its character details, The Visitor is intriguing. Mouna confesses that her favorite CD is Phantom of the Opera, a hint that her exoticism is an illusion concealing ordinary Midwestern tastes.
The film concludes on a note that is simultaneously ambiguous, sentimental, and earnest. It's a credit to McCarthy that The Visitor rises above its movie-of-the-week premise and emerges as a thing of grace and heart. Without question, the film condemns inhumane immigration policies. However, its most enduring face is that of a complex morality tale, one that lauds humility, kindness, and courage as necessary elements for life in modern multi-ethnic America.