Many may regard Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor as just a parable or even a humanistic fantasy but I would like to think that it is more than that. I want to believe that somewhere a buttoned-down, emotionally shut-down scholar could reawaken when he decides against merely throwing out two immigrants who have been illegally staying in his apartment that he has not lived in for years. Indeed, not only does he reawaken in the film, he builds a friendship that becomes intimately close to familial.
That connection is all the power in the film, which singularly paints a most humanistic face on a political problem. Much like he did in The Station Agent in which he soulfully tackled the issue of differences in interacting with a dwarf man, writer/director Thomas McCarthy, who reportedly based the movie loosely on his own experiences of a friendship with an immigrant, gives us characters who find profound camaraderie in the unlikeliest situations – this time across cultures and nationalities rather than physical stature. It is also about a man who blasts free of years of emotional paralysis by embracing his own capacity for generosity that he thought lay dormant for so long.
The man is Walter Vale, who is played by Richard Jenkins in a remarkably understated performance that shows that perhaps he would have been a more ideal choice than Jack Nicholson to play the titular role in About Schmidt. He is a 62-year-old Connecticut College economics professor who teaches only one class and claims to be working on finishing his great novel though his sad, crinkled face and his aimless piano lessons suggest his life as a whole is going nowhere. In the beginning, he hardly seems to be open to any kindness, as he even refuses to hear the reason one of his students turned in a paper late.
One day, he travels to New York to present a paper he co-authored at a conference. He hasn’t been in his apartment there for 25 years and is stunned to find when he arrives at night that it has been illegally sublet to a Syrian immigrant, Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira). After a brief confrontation, the couple willingly agrees to leave immediately. Upon seeing a framed picture the couple left behind, he seeks them out and asks whether they have a place to stay.
Thus begins a friendship between Walter and Tarek, and McCarthy, as he did with The Station Agent, makes sure that he builds it patiently in the lowest and subtlest key. The turning point when they bond as Tarek teaches Walter to play the African drum could have been made soppy with needless gestures of “a-ha” realization but is handled with masterfully restrained direction with as little and simple dialogue as possible. Soon thereafter, in a scene that transitions from being gently humorous to genuinely affecting, Walter finds himself drumming alongside African immigrants in Central Park.
Right after though, the movie hits its thematic and emotional shift when Tarek is arrested in the subway in front of Walter and locked away in a detention center. It is here the film becomes more issue-oriented and, though it asks hard questions (like how people like Tarek are whisked away to detention without a proper reading of rights or notice to family members), the story does not overdraw either the government officials and lawyers that Walter desperately seeks out as merely cold-hearted or the immigrants necessarily as unassuming victims. The movie’s sole focus is on showing the reverberating emotional and psychological costs of the unforgiving laws built in the wounding aftermath of 9/11.
Carrying through the heartfelt and heartbreaking traversals is Richard Jenkins who, with the slightest facial gestures, proves that he can hold the screen like a vice for a whole movie rather than just the select few scenes he usually does in so many films (look him up on IMDb to match his name and extensive filmography to his face). It is astonishing to think of the number of character actors whom we take for granted in building a convincing surrounding universe in the movies and it is a joy to watch Jenkins fill this flesh-and-blood character as a quietly towering emotional center. McCarthy, a character actor himself in numerous films, let Peter Dinklage do just that in The Station Agent and he just may guide Jenkins this time to a leading Oscar nomination come next year.