“The Visitor” Certainly Doesn’t Overstay Its Welcome
- Christa Banister Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2008 4 Apr
Release Date: April 25, 2008 (wide)
Rating: PG-13 (brief strong language)
Run Time: 108 min.
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Actors: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Marian Seldes, Maggie Moore, Richard Kind
It was Mary Poppins who famously sang about how “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” And waving umbrella or not, that imagery is quite fitting when describing The Visitor. Instead of opting for the oh-so-informative documentary or an intense political thriller to address the hot-button topic of illegal immigration, the filmmakers go straight for the heart with this emotionally compelling drama.
Typically the go-to-guy for supporting roles as the loving but forgettable dad or the slightly square doctor or lawyer, Richard Jenkins is the heart and soul leading man in The Visitor as Walter Vale, a prickly economics professor who isn’t having the easiest time with his recent widower status. While it seems like Walter’s got it all on the surface with an impeccable Connecticut home, a trendy Manhattan apartment for whenever he feels like hangin’ out in the city and a collection of fine wine that he enjoys with every meal, it’s clear from the outset that his life isn’t a happy one. It’s boring and ultimately, meaningless, even with all the pleasures that having money can buy.
However, when Walter heads to New York to present one of his papers at a hum-drum conference, his life takes an unexpectedly colorful detour. When Walter stops by his Manhattan digs, he discovers that two papers-free immigrants have decided that his casa is their casa. But after Walter and his two new housemates hash it out (and understandably so, given the most unusual circumstances), he reacts to the situation in a way that most wouldn’t—he takes Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) in for as long as they need.
While it would’ve been easy for Walter to think he’d done enough by giving his new visitors a place to live, he doesn’t just act as the duo’s benevolent landlord of sorts. Instead, Walter begins to forge a friendship that’s as beneficial for him as it is for Tarek and Zainab. With Tarek, their common bond is a love for music. While Walter has taken a few piano lessons, Tarek actually made his living at it as a djembe drummer. Now supporting himself by playing shows with jazz bands throughout the Big Apple, Tarek makes it his mission to teach the rhythm-less white guy a thing or two about soul in more ways than one. And these moments are truly some of the movie’s most humorous and touching as almost a brotherly bond is created between two guys who couldn’t be more different from each other.
But as enjoyable as it is to watch Walter’s emotional transformation slowly unfold, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the party isn’t going to last forever. Just when everything seems to be going so well, the immigration issue rears its ugly head when Tarek is locked up in a Homeland Security holding facility in Queens for a false charge. And since Zainab is also illegal, she can’t even visit Tarek because she’d face a similar fate. So as expected, it’s all up to Walter to help get Tarek out of prison and on the path to becoming a legal U.S. citizen.
While certain plot elements are easy to predict in The Visitor, writer/director Thomas McCarthy keeps the viewer on his/her toes with a twist in the story’s third act that provides another layer of emotional gravitas when Tarek’s mother Moana (Hiam Abbass) arrives on the scene. Even though they come from strikingly different backgrounds, they have their age and similar circumstances of losing their spouses in common. Ultimately, it’s their passion to see Tarek freed, however, that leads to a beautiful love story that’s not contrived or overly sappy.
Telling the story through the relatable medium of relationships, rather than debate-the-points rhetoric, helps the audience see the immigration issue from a new angle and provides plenty of fodder for later conversation on the topic. Demonstrating the fruits of a life defined by the biblical mandate of “love one another,” The Visitor is a touching, entertaining indie film that certainly won’t wear out its welcome. It also proves the maxim that even a provocative topic like immigration goes down a whole lot easier with a little cinematic sugar.
- Drugs/Alcohol: Walter drinks wine with every meal—including breakfast.
- Language/Profanity: In the film’s most intense confrontational scene, there’s several expletives.
- Sex/Nudity: Some kissing.
- Violence: None.