On the stuck-up heels of Smart People comes another aloof-trumps-affected characterization, an allegedly edifying higher-learning chapter from Sideways (2004) producer Michael London—released one week after People—called The Visitor (2008). Again, the scholarly and indifferent college professor protagonist is an aimless widower with a suburban house in which to reside, but no place to call “home.”
Quoting Batman’s (2008) Joker—why so serious? In Prof. Walter Vale's (Richard Jenkins) case it’s because he’s discontented. Never remarried, he’s still wearing his wedding band and, after silently steamrolling through four music instructors, still trying to learn to play piano for the first time—the instrument his accomplished wife played professionally. Whiting out the two-year-old heading to update his Introduction to Economics syllabus, we needn’t any more evidence to see the balding, sixty-something is detached from his existence. Professionally, socially, and emotionally, he’s going through the motions like you might to keep pace on a slow-moving treadmill. We're realizing it, the question is is he?
Presenting an academic paper at a New York University conference, Walter visits the apartment he keeps in NYC. It’s here that he unwittingly finds the off-beat inflection his humdrum life is missing. A twenty-something Muslim couple is “squatting”—living in the apartment without permission—when the meek Prof. quite literally stumbles upon them. The man, Tarik (Haaz Sleiman), is from Syria, the woman, Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), from Senegal. They’re in love, trying to make a respectable life for themselves as recent immigrants to America. After some initial fireworks upon discovering one another, Tarik and Zainab leave the apartment peacefully. They’re without shelter. Walter, sensing the chance to make a meaningful difference in others' lives, offers to let the international couple stay until they can find their own place.
It’s awkward living arrangement, to say the least. On the circumstantial surface, Walter appears to have nothing in common with the couple. But that’s misleading—the fact is that Walter’s withdrawal leaves him not having much of anything in common with anybody. His purported work routine is a sham. He didn’t even author the academic paper he’s presenting, an admission that will only emerge later. If he’s going to reclaim his life, he’s going to have to seize the heartening victories, no matter how short-lived.
It’s a good thing for Walter he’s the emotional strength to peer inward, when he knows he won't like what he sees. Tarik and Zainab don’t have an elitist's agenda. Tarik plays an African hand drum called a Djembe and Zainab sells high-quality handmade jewelry on the streets of NYC. For each, it's their life's passion. The financial riches the couple lack in their pocketbooks, they exceed in their devotion to each other and the American dream. Walter was born and raised with that reachable dream in sight—one to which Tarik and Zainab aspire—but the apathetic teacher has no one to share it with.
When Tarik offers to teach Walter to play the Djembe drum, the perpetually suit-and-tie adorned Walter becomes a cautiously eager student. The two men gleefully join a drum circle in Central Park. Minus dreadlocks and exotic fashion accessories, Walter’s the proverbial fish out of water. The beauty of it is supposed to be that no one cares, on screen—or off.
Tarik and Walter continue growing their friendship until Tarik is arrested for jumping a subway turnstile, a crime he didn't commit. Nevertheless, in the climate of post-9/11 NYC, the Syrian is detained. Turns out he’s an illegal. Tarik won't be released without legal struggling. Tensions escalate when Tarik’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), travels from Michigan unannounced looking for her son because she hasn't heard from him. The cruel irony is that the loving Mouna can’t visit her son because she too is an illegal immigrant. Walter, finding a cause worth believing in, takes a sabbatical from teaching, and spends his time and money fighting for Tarik's release, the friend he made only ten days before.
Jenkins has fully adopted the less-is-more school of acting by underplaying with extreme caution every scene and situation that Walter finds himself in. His deadpan glaze—picture Jenkins’ "departedly" subdued Nathaniel Fisher in HBO’s Six Feet Under—is so stoned-faced that his inscrutable features may as well be carved granite. It isn’t until he takes Tarik’s mother in, as the pair fight for her son’s release, that he begins revealing his vulnerabilities to her, giving him the strength to want to be a better man.
The Visitor’s deliberate tempo, in its first half a strength, becomes an increasing tedious liability as the urgency of Tarik’s deportation status escalates. When Walter finally unleashes his fury at the inherent unfairness with which Tarik’s being treated by the government, the emotions don’t detonate onscreen like they should. As musician Todd Rundgren loudly proclaimed 25 years ago, Walter don’t want to work, he wants to bang on the drum all day. If his emotions flowed forthwith in his defining hour with the same vigor his drum-playing does, Walter might well have made the force-of-nature transformation that we so desperately are awaiting. Walter may have a better rhythm for having crossed paths with Tarik, but his lifeblood isn't infused with rhyme enough for us to care about what will become of him tomorrow.