On first impression, The Visitor might appear to be just another "white guy gets rhythm, learns about a new culture" film. Certainly it fits this description, and has its clichés. But The Visitor—the second directorial effort by actor Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent was his first)—also turns out to be thoroughly, refreshingly unique, a film that weaves a tight, timely tale that is equal parts heart-warming and wrenching.
The Visitor centers upon Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a crotchety economics professor who masks his loneliness (he's a widower) with a veneer of "cell phone in hand" self-importance. Appropriately for what is to come in the story, Walter is about as white as you can get. He lives in a pristine Connecticut house but also maintains a Manhattan apartment. He drives a Volvo, is never without a glass of fine wine (even at the breakfast table), and takes piano lessons from an old white lady named Barbara Watson. Wherever he goes, Walter seems surrounded by white walls and an antiseptic aura.
On a trip to New York for a conference where he reluctantly must present a paper, Walter's boring, hyper-white life takes a decidedly colorful turn. Upon entering his Manhattan apartment, Walter discovers that two undocumented immigrants have made themselves at home. A predictably dicey confrontation ensues (but is quickly ameliorated) as the foreign intruders try to explain themselves to an understandably shocked Walter. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) are the pair in question—two "invisible" immigrants from, respectively, Syria and Senegal. What could have been a violent interaction turns out to be the unlikely first step toward a deep friendship—albeit a tentative step. The lonely Walter feels pity on the couple and—as they gather their belongings to quietly leave Walter's apartment—he invites them to stay as long as they need to.
Soon the oddly paired trio becomes something of a family—especially Walter and Tarek. Tarek is a djembe drummer and makes a living playing gigs with jazz bands throughout New York City. For whatever reason, Tarek takes it upon himself to teach the rhythm-challenged Walter to play as well—a process that provides many of the film's funniest moments (including some hilarious scenes of Walter in a suit, banging away in a Central Park drum circle). It also provides the means for some serious cross-cultural bonding, which is ultimately what The Visitor is all about.
Of course, just as things are working out so swimmingly for our ethnically-diverse threesome, the whole immigration issue comes barging in to spoil the multicultural party. Tarek is nabbed on a bogus charge and locked up in a mysterious Homeland Security holding facility in Queens. Since Zainab is also an illegal, she cannot visit Tarek in jail (as she would be apprehended as well). Thus it is up to Walter to be the liaison and lone advocate for Tarek as he tries to fight his way out of deportation. Walter hires an immigration lawyer on Tarek's behalf and prepares to do everything in his power to get Tarek on the path to legal residency.