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.

Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale

Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale

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.

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Walter and Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) get rhythm

Walter and Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) get rhythm

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.

But just as The Visitor looks like its second half will be some sort of courtroom drama, it totally shifts and becomes an unexpectedly moving love story. After hearing about her son's incarceration, Tarek's mother, Moana (Hiam Abbass), arrives in NYC from Michigan. Conveniently, Moana is just about Walter's age (and she is also a widow). Bound by their mutual passion to set Tarek free, Walter and Moana find themselves drawing closer and closer, picking up the cross-cultural connection where Walter and Tarek left off.

Danai Jekesai Gurira as Zainab

Danai Jekesai Gurira as Zainab

As the film goes on, the title—The Visitor—becomes ever more meaningful. Each of the four main characters is at some point in the film an "outsider"—stepping into a world that is not comfortable, and certainly not "home." But in spite of the "fish out of water" motif, the film finds plenty of occasions for deeply felt connection, even if tainted by a pervasive sense of temporality (as the title implies). Ultimately the film is about impermanence, both in its beauty (sharing moments and memories, growing, changing) and ugliness (leaving things behind).

Far from a downer, though, The Visitor is a cheerful bit of comedy-drama with some great acting performances from its four leads. Jenkins is especially brilliant in his first starring role. He's one of those "familiar face" supporting actors who makes an impact in almost every scene he's in. And despite his stoic face and unremarkable countenance, Jenkins exudes more than enough charisma and "everyman" empathy to carry the film. The other actors are equally empathetic, imbuing their characters with emotional range and a complexity that eschews simplistic stereotypes.

Moana (Hiam Abass) and Walter

Moana (Hiam Abass) and Walter

Though The Visitor tackles a weighty issue and—ultimately—provides no easy answers, it is a thoroughly satisfying film. It oozes goodness and humanity and—especially in the "love story" portion—a classy reverence for dignity and trans-cultural decorum. The film reminded me of another NYC-based film that tackles a "big issue" with goodness and grace—Bella. Both of these films revel in the good of their characters, offering the audience a glimpse of the joy that comes when people truly care for one another and uphold the value and beauty of life.

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During an election year in which immigration is sure to play a significant role, a film like The Visitor is utterly refreshing. Far from a heavy-handed, agit-prop polemic, this is a film that asks us simply to humanize the issue. In the sometimes-harsh post-9/11 climate (and the constant shots of a WTC-less Manhattan skyline remind us that this is what the film is about), humanity sometimes takes a beating by the various "isms" (nationalism, terrorism, patriotism) that swirl around the ashes of 9/11. Christians have long preached (but not always practiced) the importance of loving people, first and foremost—despite their race or culture or religion. The Visitor shows us just how lovely and healing this idea—in practice—can be.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Who is to blame for what happens to Tarek at the end of the film?
  2. Are you satisfied with the current immigration policies in the U.S.? How does this film change (if at all) the way you approach this issue?
  3. Walter obviously learns quite a bit from his interactions with people of various cultures. But does anyone in the film learn anything from Walter?
  4. Why do you think music is such a focal point in this film?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Visitor is rated PG-13 for brief strong language—a few expletives during the film's most intense scene of confrontation. Otherwise, it is a clean film that revels in the goodness and kind actions by all of its lead characters. It's definitely a film that families (with older children) can enjoy together, and it provides a nice introduction to a complicated issue (immigration) that viewers will surely want to discuss.

What other Christian critics are saying:
  1. Plugged In
  2. Crosswalk
  3. Catholic News Service
  4. Past the Popcorn

The Visitor
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for brief strong language)
Directed By
Tom McCarthy
Run Time
1 hour 44 minutes
Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira
Theatre Release
May 23, 2008 by Overture Films
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