The Visitor (2008)
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass
There’s a pretty good chance you haven’t even heard of this film and that’s a crime. The Visitor is a gem of a film. It’s small in perspective but large in heart and power. Richard Jenkins stars as Walter Vale, a widowed professor who is stuck in a trans. Everything he does is routine. All of his passion in life has been drained from his being except his love for music, but when his fourth piano tutor tells him he doesn’t have the gift, he slowly sees that fade too.
Just as we’re beginning to be dragged down by Walter’s glum attitude on life, he encounters an international couple living illegally inside his NYC apartment. Everyone is startled, but it was a simple mistake. The couple is Tarek (Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Gurira) and they immediately leave the premises, but not without apologizing a dozen or so times. Not until later on in the night does Walter invite them back for a temporary stay, which is when the story lifts off.
With the couple, especially Tarek, Walter is a different person. He’s introduced to new things and he finally shows off his kind and sensitive self. Tarek teaches him African drumming, which Walter immediately takes an interest in. Unlike his piano teachers, Tarek never puts Walter down. He simply keeps on telling him to play and practice, giving him a refreshing breath to his aging life.
The movie takes a dramatic turn when Tarek is arrested in the subway and thrown into an alien detention center. When the news hits Zainab and eventually Tarek’s mother, Mouna, they’re devastated. Walter becomes the bridge between Tarek and his beloved ones. He is also their ray of hope to free Tarek from being shipped to another detention center or from being deported.
The relationship between Mouna and Walter then hits center stage as Tarek’s being held in detention and Zainab moves out. She brings as much love and care into Walter’s life, but everything takes a back seat to the more important issue being presented. That is of the government’s handling of illegal immigrants during the post-9/11 era.
McCarthy is able to take a few mildly interesting stories and weave them into a very intriguing movie. Enough cannot be said about Richard Jenkins’ performance. Many critics have hailed it as “Oscar-worthy” and I can’t disagree with them. Although it’s highly doubtful he’ll land on the nominee list because of the number of A-list actors that will be vying for the same award, his performance shouldn’t be looked upon as inferior. Given an equal opportunity, Jenkins ranks among this year’s best.