October 7, 2008 -- Writer-Director Thomas McCarthy doesn't go in for big, loud movies with guns blazing, explosions and car chases. He goes in for quiet little movies about quiet little ordinary people, like the wonderful “The Station Agent.” His stories don't depend on coincidence to advance the plot. His stories advance through the natural development of sharply observed characters. “The Visitor” is another fine movie along the same lines as “The Station Agent.” I can't wait for Thomas McCarthy's next film.
“The Visitor” stars veteran character actor Richard Jenkins of “Burn After Reading.” Jenkins plays Walter Vale, an economics professor living a dead end life. He isn't interested in what his life is about any more. He is just going though the motions of living. He plays the piano because he likes music, but doesn't enjoy playing the instrument. He plays because his late wife used to play. He teaches a college course in economics, but doesn't like economics or teaching. He doesn't keep up with the field. He doesn't publish anything new. He doesn't update his course. He just coasts along doing the minimum amount of work needed to keep a steady paycheck.
One day, his routine is interrupted by his department head who tells him he must present a paper he co-authored at an academic conference in another city (New York). He protests that he didn't really co-author the paper, he just put his name on it as a favor to another professor. The department head tells him that isn't a wise thing to make public and it isn't going to get him out of going to the conference anyway. He'll just have to go. When he arrives in New York and enters an apartment he owns there, but hasn't used in years, he discovers people living there, Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman of “American Dreamz”) and his girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira of “Ghost Town”). Tarek and Zainab have rented the apartment from a scam artist who doesn't own it. After a tense confrontation, Tarek and Zainab realize they are in the wrong and agree to move out. When Walter realizes they have nowhere to go, he offers to let them stay a few days until they can find another apartment.
Tarek is a musician from Syria who plays traditional conga-style drums. Walter develops an interest in drumming and Tarek teaches Walter to play. He quickly loses interest in all else, taking up drumming as an avocation. He plays music on the street and in bands. Tarek is arrested and Walter discovers he is an illegal alien. He hires an attorney to help Tarek and visits Tarek at an INS detention center. Tarek's mother, Mouna Khalil (Hiam Abbass) arrives in town, but she can't visit Tarek because she is also an illegal alien and so is Zainab, who is from Senegal. Walter, it turns out, is the only one who can visit Tarek without fear of being deported. Walter, a widower, also develops a romantic interest in Tarek's mother.
In the space of a few days, Walter's comfortable, empty life is overthrown. He heads into an unknown future of insecurity, passion and music. Without being preachy this film explores U.S. post-911 immigration policies, which cause havoc in this story. More than anything, this film argues that we are all people, bound by a common humanity which far outweighs our differences. The screenplay is airtight. The acting is excellent by the entire cast, led by a multiple award-winning performance by Richard Jenkins. It is a lovely, well-crafted, bittersweet little film. It rates an A.
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