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. ...1