This article may well be only the second I have published on this site, and the first film review, but it is not the the first film I have watched in 2011 by a long way. The Visitor is, however, the most compelling and captivating film of the year to date and it will take something special to beat it. It’s brilliance is not in a big budget, effects, or star studded cast because it has none of that; in fact, at the basest level the story is simple: a man, set in his ways, is forced to encounter other people whom he would not otherwise meet. He learns to play the drums; he makes friends with these people. One friend is deported but, at the close, his life is changed for the better as a result.
It is this reliance on pure story, on the vulnerability of the characters, and the, at times, slow journey to friendship that makes this such a compelling film. Richard Jenkins, who plays the lead character Walter Vale, an Economics Professor is in large part responsible for this captivation. On the face of it, Jenkins is a strange choice to be leading character, as he has until now predominantly cast in supporting roles, but this sense of actor in unfamiliar pose only serves to enhance Jenkins’ social awkwardness.
The Visitor offers a sideways look at U.S. domestic policy in the decade following 9/11, especially in regard to immigration, through the lens of the deportation of Tarek, Walter Vale’s friend. Some reviewers have criticised the manner The Visitor takes this issue on. For example, this blogger comments that
“The Visitor tells the wrong story. Instead of telling the story of Tarek and Zainab, it tells the story of Walter. Which is not only politically dubious (why would you choose to tell the story of how deportation affects the life of the white guy, instead of the people directly involved?), but it’s also pretty boring because Walter as a character is too passive to engage the audience.”
I disagree. The first person narrative only tells one side of the story and this has more or less been done before – I am thinking, for example, of Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses. Walter may have begun the film as a passive character but he did not finish as one; one needs only to witness the penultimate scene showing Vale playing the drums at Broadway Station to see that. That is not to say that The Visitor is not a political movie, however. Although the overarching subject is immigration its subject is not that of the immigrants, but of America itself.
Walter Vale’s own life was enriched by his encounter with immigrants, whether it be the drum of Tarek, the jewellery of Zainab or the intelligence of Mouna – they are encounters that turned a dejected and depressed man into one with a zest for life. If The Visitor has a political message – and it need be nothing more than a good story – then it seems to me to be remembrance of the life of the soul of America which is, for director Thomas McCarthy, an all but departed soul.