Take a resignedly balding widower and professor of economics who sleepwalks through his empty, uptight-whitey life. Give him a chance encounter and friendship with an unswervingly generous, intuitively creative person of color. Then add a political awakening, to the indecencies of New York’s post-9/11 immigration policy, and an emotional awakening, to an unexpected love interest …
Hmmm. No, this shouldn’t work at all. This should descend, swiftly and irrevocably, into a heap of all that is trite and trying too hard in small-scale American independent film today. Yet, somehow, The Visitor doesn’t sink itself. Actually, and by design, its buoyancy is rather a spectacle to behold. The designer is writer-director Tom McCarthy, who has acted so well in supporting film and TV roles that you’d never recognize him, and whose affecting 2003 directorial debut, The Station Agent, declared his noble storytelling priorities—patience, compassion—in a very low, very well-tuned key. McCarthy is a filmmaker who knows what great performances require, and what they’re worth, and his new movie powers itself with several of them.
Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a man who doesn’t say much, but seems most often curtly to be saying “goodbye,” as if to assert closure with every possible human connection in his life. Whether dismissing the piano teacher with whom he started lessons to sustain the memory of his late concert pianist wife, or the student who appeals during his office hours for a deadline extension, Walter makes a habit of walling himself off. His professorship now consists of aloofly recycling years-old syllabuses and signing his name to papers that other academics write. Walter has tucked right in to his own tedium.
The great risk of portraying such a collapsed spirit, paradoxically, is that the characterization will be showy. See, for instance, that other listless, widowed college professor on offer at the movies right now, Dennis Quaid’s version of the part in Smart People. But Jenkins comes from a different place; with a modest history as a vaguely familiar character actor, he bears no burden like Quaid’s self-conscious sense of obligation to his own early-career charisma. Jenkins gets away with underplaying every beat because that’s precisely what the movie requires of him: a life awaiting galvanization.
Cornered by a colleague into presenting one of those “co-authored” papers at a conference in New York, Walter checks back in to the apartment he’s kept in Manhattan for many years, only to discover a couple of illegal immigrants living there. And he decides to let them stay.
Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a young Syrian man, is a charmer with a beaming smile and an improvisatory air, who plays an African drum and tends to live on “Arab time.” “It means late by an hour. All Arabs are late by an hour,” he explains. “It’s genetic; we can’t help it.” His beautiful girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) sells her handmade jewelry in the street, where the typical customer is a pinch-faced white woman who’s somehow managed to travel to South Africa without realizing that it’s half a continent away from Zainab’s native Senegal. Probably this is why Zainab takes a little longer to warm up to Walter than Tarek, who’s giving the man drum lessons before he knows it.
In a series of subtle and marvelously played scenes, the three of them build a halting, increasingly comfortable rapport. And Walter starts to loosen up, his dour solemnity giving way to real dignity—just in time for Tarek to get arrested and sent to a detention center for probable deportation. Then Tarek’s mother Mouna (the lovely and appealing Hiam Abbass), a widow herself, arrives unannounced at Walter’s door. And suddenly he has a lot to deal with.
It’s almost funny how often and how closely The Visitor teeters toward cliché, only to deliver one gently genuine moment after another. McCarthy’s point is that compassion is inherently cinematic—not just because it’s gratifying to watch, but also because it’s problematic.
In his empathetic presentation, even places seem like accomplished character actors: From a freewheeling and highly democratic Central Park drum circle to the dully stolid Queens detention center, The Visitor gets something really right about New York City. It’s not just the pulse of the place, that improbable syncopation of twitch and stillness; it’s the dance going on between all its dislocated souls–and the even more improbable ways in which they sometimes come together, then get plucked apart.