But a curmudgeon he’s not, and that’s part of what makes The Visitor such a wonderful film: that, when faced with dire circumstances, we as humans are good. It’s wishful thinking, yes, and far-fetched to some, but Richard Jenkins, as Walter, makes it seem plausible.
Upon returning home to New York for a conference, he finds two illegal immigrants living in his apartment. They are Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician, and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), a Senegalese jewelry maker. Much of the first third of the film observes the couple’s relationships with Walter, with Tarek giving him djembe lessons (music as the great communicator), while Zainab is too skeptical to develop one.
And then Tarek, after seen hopping a subway turnstile, is arrested and threatened with deportation. Writer/director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent) keeps the script’s political motives as subtle as possible, exploding only once when Walter, at the detention center where Tarek is held, won’t accept a worker’s “I don’t know” for an answer.
Jenkins’ performance, both quiet and desperate, is key to The Visitor. I sound like I’m campaigning for him to win the Oscar, and maybe I am (I’m at least hoping), but it’s a performance like this—so anti-Hollywood and without theatrics—that a film like this requires, and Jenkins, in all his delicateness, is perfect.
Another good turn comes from Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother, Mouna (also illegal), who fears her son will face the same fate as her late husband. An unlikely romance-of-sorts develops between Walter and Mouna, who bond over both their deceased spouses and their children, who they may never see again. It’s a bit silly and out of place, but it offers Walter just the turnaround he needs.
The Visitor, even with its few contrivances, spares any storybook ending. It is not hopeful or obvious. This is a film that shows how difficult (or, impossible) it is to fight The System and achieve justice. It’s one of the best, most honest films of the year.
An Inside Look at The Visitor (4:48): This standard promotional piece doesn’t give itself enough time to offer anything more than clips and cast and crew sound bites.
Playing the Djembe (7:48) offers a look the African drum, with director McCarthy, actors Jenkins and Sleiman, and coach Mohammed Naseehu Ali discussing techniques, the cast’s lessons, and how the instrument is vital to the story.
Deleted Scenes (3:21): There are four here, with optional commentary by McCarthy and Jenkins, who explain what each scene is and why it was cut. They’re worth watching, but none add anything to the story.