FILM REVIEW: The Visitor 

Stranger in a Strange Land: Immigrants teach an American how to reconnect

The Visitor
Starring Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
Rated PG-13

Sixty-two-year-old Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a very sad shell of a man for whom life has lost its luster. His wife died years ago, and his job as an economics professor at a Connecticut college comes with an unbearable procession of classes, procedure, and students. Walter is clearly phoning it in, going through the paces but not the spirit of living.

But Walter has a reawakening when he travels to his New York apartment for a conference. He discovers a young couple, illegal immigrants who have been duped into renting the apartment.

Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is a drummer from Syria and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) an aspiring Senegalese jewelry designer who sells her wares at an open air market. Faced with leaving them out on the streets, Walter decides to offer them shelter for a time. And out of this odd trio, a relationship evolves — with some fits and starts — as the skeptical Zainab chafes at her husband hanging out with the grim, stiff Walter.

Tarek teaches Walter drumming, and the pair are shown engaging in communal, energizing drum circles in New York City parks that convey the close bonds of immigrants living in a new world and the intensity of city life. Music, but also a shared dislocation (Walter's time in New York City is an exile from his Connecticut "homeland" of sorts), is what unites the men. Walter's wife was a classical pianist, and though he is shown early on taking piano lessons, it is clear that, like his wife, the joy of music has left him. In the drum circles, Walter finds his voice and an exorcism of everything he holds inside.

The Visitor is not just a story of people from opposite places in the world coming together. It becomes a story about American lives and how we can so easily lose touch with the relative ease of our own existence. The kind of ignorance about others' plights is seen in a moment at Zainab's jewelry stand when an older white woman experiences a typical Western connection to the global "exotic" in shopping. Much in Zainab and Tarek's life, compared to the people they encounter, is hard. But The Visitor conveys something meaningful in how their labors are transformed into beautiful, creative things: into jewelry and music.

Disaster strikes when Tarek is picked up by the police over a misunderstanding and soon descends into a labyrinthine immigration bureaucracy. His Syrian nationality is an obvious hot button in The War on Terror.

Walter's voyage of self-discovery suddenly changes to a self-sacrificing effort to free Tarek from jail. Tarek's mother, the elegant, despondent beauty Mouna (Hiam Abbass), comes to New York to help her son. Walter's own loss of his wife is echoed in Mouna's imminent loss of her son, threatened with deportation back to Syria. Though it is just deportation, the finality of Tarek's threatened fate feels in some ways like a kind of death, and it has its own echoes in Walter's loss.

Though The Visitor is centered on these relationships between people, it also offers a critique of the devouring, inhumane gears of an immigration system rigged for maximum difficulty. Walter's burnt-out depression is nothing compared to the vast, windowless prison in remote Queens. The point about an America we take for granted is made as Mouna and Walter take a boat trip past the Statue of Liberty, an icon Walter seems oblivious to, but which Mouna treats with reverence.

Director/writer (and The Wire actor) Thomas McCarthy revisits, in some sense, material from his directorial debut The Station Agent about the connections forged between disparate lonely people, including a sad dwarf (Peter Dinklage) with some emotional resemblance to Walter.

Some might find the excess of plot lines in The Visitor off-putting. Others have accused The Visitor of having a message about the First and Third World coming together that can border on treacly liberal feel-goodness.

But in the end, any message about how America's post-9/11 immigration policy has wreaked havoc on families seems secondary to McCarthy's interest in people. Everyone in The Visitor is adrift in some way, either geographically or psychologically. But it is Walter who is the real visitor of the film's title, a tourist in his own country, whose eyes are opened up to the difficulties around him.

Richard Jenkins is a mesmerizing presence in the film. He's a painfully ordinary-looking, invisible man who finds himself reconnecting to life in a radical way. His performance, like that of Dinklage in The Station Agent, is what pulls all of the disparate pieces of The Visitor together. It is a testament to the power of his acting that in the end, to have seen even a trace of happiness creep back into Walter's life is an intensely pleasurable, if fleeting, experience.

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