2008, PG-13, 108 min. Directed by Tom McCarthy. Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Marian Seldes.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 25, 2008
McCarthy, the writer/director of 2003's The Station Agent, is back with another humanist drama, although this new one offers bridges among characters of different nationalities rather than personality types. Curiously, The Visitor is both predictable and unpredictable. Jenkins (a busy character actor who, no doubt, will be recognizable to viewers from dozens of movies, if not his role as the deceased father on HBO's Six Feet Under) is uncharacteristically cast in the lead by McCarthy (himself an actor when not writing and directing). Jenkins' role as Walter Vale is a gift that he capitalizes on fully. The character and the film are studies in understatement, communicating often through the absence of words or actions. Vale is a bored widower, a Connecticut university professor who can muster little interest in his students or field of study: economics. When he's sent to New York to deliver a paper he co-authored, he stays at the Manhattan apartment he once shared with his wife and still owns. To his surprise, he discovers the place is occupied by a young Muslim couple: Tarek from Syria and Zainab from Senegal. He naturally evicts the two, but then follows them down to the street to return something they had left behind in the apartment. Next thing we know, all three are back in the apartment, Walter having recanted his initial decision – all of which is nicely conveyed to the viewer through elision, by letting us fill in the blanks of Walter's emotional journey. We may think we know where this is going: Hard-hearted economics prof reclaims his soul through his interaction with these illegal immigrants, who are full of life and artful enterprise (Tarek is a drummer and Zainab designs jewelry). Well, yes and no. Change occurs, but not necessarily in the ways you might expect. McCarthy's approach is much truer to life, in which people enter and depart another's personal orbit without causing earth-shattering alterations in behavior or relationships. By definition, that means that not much occurs in The Visitor, yet it is never uninteresting to watch. These actors, along with Abbass as Tarek's mother, are all skilled in the art of communicating emotions wordlessly. I don't know that everyone will find a drum circle as liberating as these characters do, but The VIsitor is definitely a film that marches to its own drumbeat.